While men are thinking of the planets, other worlds may be thinking of us. At least the curious phenomena of that old New England house suggested that possibility… An unforgettable new story of uneathly wonder by two masters of the science-fiction terror tale.
Epigraph to “The Murky Glass” in Saturn: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction May 1957
August Derleth was one of the original creators of what became known as the Cthulhu Mythos. His contributions started while Lovecraft was alive with “The Lair of the Star Spawn” (1932) and “The Thing That Walked on the Wind” (1933). After the death of H. P. Lovecraft in 1937 and the creation of Arkham House in 1939 to publish Lovecraft’s work, August Derleth would continue to write a number of tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and in the Lovecraftian vein. These were not written immediately with an eye toward filling out the Lovecraft collections or even his own anthologies, but for sale to magazines, mostly Weird Tales, and published over a series of years. The stories can be divided into three groups:
Older stories written with Mark Schorer that were not published until later (“Spawn of the Maelstrom” (1939) and “The Evil Ones” (1940, later reprinted as “The Horror from the Depths”).
Pulpy horror tales (“The Return of Hastur” (1939), “Passing of Eric Holm” (1939), “The Sandwin Compact” (1940), “Ithaqua” (1941), “Beyond the Threshold” (1941), “The Dweller in Darkness” (1944), “Something in Wood” (1948), “The Whippoorwill in the Hills” (1948), “The House in the Valley” (1953), “The Seal of R’lyeh” (1957, also as “The Seal of the Damned”), and the Trail of Cthulhu series (“The Trail of Cthulhu” (1944, also as “The House on Curwen Street”), “The Watcher from the Sky” (1945), “The Testament of Clairmont Boyd” (1949, also as “The Gorge Beyond Salapunco”), “The Keeper of the Key” (1951), and “The Black Island” (1952)).
“Posthumous collaborations” with H. P. Lovecraft: The Lurker at the Threshold (1945), “The Survivor” (1954), “Wentworth’s Day” (1957), “The Peabody Heritage” (1957), “The Gable Window” (1957, also as “The Murky Glass”), “The Ancestor” (1957), “The Shadow Out of Space” (1957), “The Lamp of Alhazred” (1957), “The Shuttered Room” (1959), “The Fisherman of Falcon Point” (1959), “Witches’ Hollow” (1962), “The Shadow in the Attic” (1964), “The Dark Brotherhood” (1966), “The Horror from the Middle Span” (1967), “Innsmouth Clay” (1971), and “The Watchers Out of Time” (1974); and Robert E. Howard: “The House in the Oaks” (1971).
The individual merit of these stories varies considerably, but it should be apparent that taken together they represent a substantial body of “Lovecraftian” fiction: 34 short stories, novelettes, and a novel—and Lovecraft’s own published fiction only amounts to 65 stories (plus ~33 revisions and collaborations like “Four O’Clock” (1949), “The Curse of Yig” (1929),“The Night Ocean” (1936), etc.)…and Derleth had, as well as his fictional input to the Mythos, a strong editorial influence on how Lovecraft’s fiction was interpreted, through his introductions to various anthologies and collections of Lovecraft’s work, analyses of his fiction, press releases etc. This is why after Derleth’s death in 1971 there was pushback from fans like Richard L. Tierney in “The Derleth Mythos”—and lent impetus to a Lovecraft purest movement in publishing and scholarship.
Much of the animus against Derleth is centered on his “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft. To better understand the reasoning behind these, it is important to understand what Derleth publicly claimed and presented these stories as:
Not for twelve years has the byline of the late, great Howard Phillips Lovecraft appeared on any new work–and it appears now only because, among the papers of the late R. H. Barlow are found Lovecraft’s notes and/or beginnings for the seven stories which go to make up this collection–all now completed by August Derleth, just as he completed Lovecraft’s unfinished novel, The Lurker at the Threshold.
Here are seven tales–two novelettes and five shorter stories–which belong to virtually every period of Lovecraft’s work–from the early fantasies (The Lamp of Alhazred), through the New England pieces (Wentworth’s Day and The Peabody Heritage) to the Cthulhu Mythos (The Gable Window, The Shadow out of Space, The Survivor). Taken together, these seven stories are a nostalgic backward look to the macabre world in which H. P. Lovecraft was supreme.
These are tales of terrifying witchcraft, of cosmic horror, of quaint magic, such as only H. P. Lovecraft could have conceived. Here in these pages Great Cthulhu walks again, the Dunwich-Arkham country lives once more, and, in a final allegory, Lovecraft himself is portrayed in a quasi-autobiographical manner.
August Derleth’s completion of these stories was a labor of love. Perhaps no other contemporary writer has so closely emulated the Lovecraft style as he–as these stories testify.
The Survivor and Others 1957, inside front jacket flap
Among the papers of the late Howard Phillips Lovecraft were various notes and/or outlines for stories which he did not live to write. Of these, the most compelte was the title story of this collection. These scattered notes were put together by August Derleth, whose finished stories grown from Lovecraft’s suggested plots, are offered here as a final collaboration, post-mortem.
The Survivor and Others 1957, copyright page
The works in The Survivor and Others and the novel The Lurker at the Threshold were all presented as “unfinished” works, or works built up from Lovecraft’s notes. The truth was quite different: Lovecraft left no such incomplete stories. What he did leave was a commonplace book containing various bare ideas for stories, some fragments of prose, and a body of correspondence that included Lovecraft’s dreams and other ideas for stories never written during his lifetime. From these, Derleth wrote his “posthumous collaborations”—some of them (“The Lamp of Alhazred”) contained some genuine text from Lovecraft, but most of them were little more than stories vaguely suggested from Lovecraft’s commonplace book, as close to pure Derleth as most of Lovecraft’s “ghostwriting” efforts were pure Lovecraft. Derleth’s marketing of these works as “by Lovecraft and Derleth” was seen by some as dishonest…and worse than that, those that took Derleth at his word often took the works to be primarily Lovecraft’s, such as David Punter’s influential textbook The Literature of Terror (first edition 1980, second edition 1996).
It should be noted, however, thas as much as the publication of these stories always emphasized Lovecaft’s name and contribution, this was first and foremost a marketing gimmick. In private, just as Lovecraft would acknowledge his own contributions in his revision and ghostwriting work, Derleth would frankly acknowledge the full extant of his authorship:
[…] & Ballantine’s paperback of THE SURVIVOR & OTHERS (emphasizing Lovecraft, understandably, over Derleth, who did 97% of the writing) […]
The pushback against Derleth’s interpretation of and contributions to the Mythos has led to his stories being largely neglected by scholars and fans. Yet many of Derleth’s stories are worth at least a little study, and some understanding of how and why they were written and published can give help elucidate the picture of Mythos publishing post-Lovecraft.
As should be clear, August Derleth didn’t start out writing “posthumous collaborations” as soon as Lovecraft’s corpse was cold. His first was The Lurker at the Threshold (1945), which has the distinction of being the first Mythos novel. Including Lovecraft’s name in this work can be barely defended—the ~50,000 word novel contains two unrelated fragments from Lovecraft’s papers, “The Round Tower” and “Of Evill Sorceries Done in New-England, of Daemons in No Humane Shape” which come to ~1,200 words—but it is clear that Derleth is using Lovecraft’s name predominantly for marketing purposes, and does not assay another “posthumous collaboration” until late 1953 or early 1954:
You already have “The Survivor,” which I hope can appear in the July or September issue. Three others are now ready–
“Wentworth’s Day,” at 4500 words
“The Gable Window,” at 7500 words
“The Peabody Heritage,” at 7500 words
There will be at least two more–or enough for an entire year of Weird Tales. And we might be able to turn up more thereafter, if the use of them has any noticeable effect on the sales of the magazine.
By 1954, Weird Tales under editor Dorothy McIlwraith was on its last legs, having switched to bimonthly and a digest format, and even re-instated reprints to cut costs—which included reprinting some of Lovecraft’s fiction. Derleth was a loyal contributor and could have resurrected the “posthumous collaboration with Lovecraft” gimmick in an effort to help save the magazine—or, considering that Derleth had married in 1953 and his wife was pregnant, perhaps he simply needed the money. In either case, it was too little, too late to save Weird Tales, which folded with the September 1954 issue, before any of Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” except “The Survivor” (WT July 1954) could be published.
I have here: “The Gable Window,” “The Ancestor,” “Wentworth’s Day,” “The Peabody Heritage,” Hallowe’en for Mr. Faukner,” also “The Seal of R’lyeh.” It might be that whoever takes over WT might see the value of the Lovecraft tie-in, but I don’t know…
Despite McIlwraith’s hopes, no one picked up publication of Weird Tales, and August Derleth was left with a handful of “posthumous collaborations” and very few markets in which to publish them. Eventually, Derleth would publish these stories through Arkham House in a volume titled The Survivor and Others (1957)…yet there is an interesting note in that book regarding one of the stories:
The Gable Window, copyright 1957, by Candar Publishing Company, Inc., (as The Murky Glass), for Saturn, May 1957.
The Survivor and Others 1957, copyright page
Derleth had managed to get “The Gable Window” published, albeit under a different title—which is no great surprise, many editors change titles to suit their tastes, and some editors go further: they might break up or combine chapters and paragraphs, revise wording, even excise extraneous text or revise endings. Lovecraft decried these practices and would in later years be adamant that the editor not even change a comma, but Derleth was probably more practical and less particular: weird fiction was, for Derleth, often more of a potboiler effort than a major form of personal expression as it was with Lovecraft.
As it happens, a close (line-by-line) comparison between the Saturn text of “The Murky Glass” and the Survivor text of “The Gable Window” shows a number of differences between the two texts, most relatively minor. Without access to surviving drafts, it’s difficult to reconstruct the exact sequence of revision or editorial interference, but by looking at a handful of the differences we might get an idea of the editorial thought behind those changes—and this is especially the case since “The Gable Window” text in The Survivor and Others is the basis for all other publications of the text. “The Murky Window” has never been reprinted as-is.
“The Murky Glass”
“The Gable Window”
It seemed, therefore, that the first order of business was a restoration of the rightful way of existence in the house, a resumption of life on the ground floor. To tell the truth, I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room; in part, certainly, because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who would never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, and in part, also, because the room was to me unnaturally alien and cold, holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand, though this was surely consistent with my attitude about the room, for I could understand it no more than I ever really understood my cousin Wilbur. (SA103)
It seemed, therefore, that the first order of business was a restoration of the rightful way of existence in the house, a resumption of life on the ground floor, for to tell the truth, I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room; in part, certainly, because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who would never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, and in part, also, because the room was to me unnaturally alien and holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand, though this was surely consistent with my attitude about the room, for I could understand it no more than I ever really understood my cousin Wilbur. (SO79-80)
One of the characteristics of Derleth’s pastiche style of Lovecraft is long, run-on sentences; a tendency that is more marked when sentences (and paragraphs) that were separate in “The Murky Glass” are conjoined in “The Gable Window.” Whether this was a result of an editor chopping up Derleth’s initial draft, or Derleth splicing together things to make longer sentences and paragraphs when preparing it for book publication is unclear, and either is likely. Derleth’s choice to omit “cold” from the description of the gable room probably reflects that he never refers to the room as particularly cold in the remainder of the story; a little clean-up.
My cousin’s will had been probated, the estate had been settled, and no one challenged my possession of the house. (SA105)
My cousin’s will had been probated, the estate had been settled, and no one challenged my possession. (SO82)
Pulp writers typically had to shave words from a manuscript to meet tight wordcount limits, so the question here is: did Derleth include “of the house” originally and decide to excise it as unnecessary in “The Gable Window?” Or did the editors of Saturn think the line was unclear and add “of the house” to clarify?
Dear Fred, he wrote, The best medical authorities tell me I have not long to live, and, since I have already set down in my will that you are to be my heir, I want to supplement that document now with a few final instructions, which I adjure you not to dismiss and want you to carry out faithfully. There are specifically three things you must do without fail, and these are as follows:
One: All my papers in Drawers A, B, and C of my filing cabinet are to be destroyed. Two: All books on shelves H, I, J, and K are to be turned over to the library of Miskatonic University at Arkham. Three: The round glass window in the gable room upstairs is to be broken. It is not to be simply removed and disposed of elsewhere, but it must be shattered.
You must accept my decision that these things must be done, or you may ultimately be responsible for loosing a terrible scourge upon the world. I shall say no more of this, for there are other matters of which I wish to write here while I am still able to do so. One of these is the question… (SA108)
“Dear Fred,” he wrote, “The best medical authorities tell me I have not long to live, and, since I have already set down in my will that you are to be my heir, I want to supplement that document now with a few final instructions, which I adjure you not to dismiss and want you to carry out faithfully. There are specifically three things you must do without fail, as follows:
“1) All my papers in Drawers A, B, and C of my filing cabinet are to be destroyed. “2) All books on shelves H, I, J, and K are to be turned over to the library of Miskatonic University at Arkham. “3) The round glass window in the gable room upstairs is to be broken. It is not to be simply removed and disposed of elsewhere, but it must be shattered.
“You must accept my decision that these things must be done, or you may ultimately be responsible for loosing a terrible scourge upon the world. I shall say no more of this, for there are other matters of which I wish to write here while I am still able to do so. One of these is the question…” (SO86)
The most notable changes between the two texts are format. The Saturn editors preferred italics to quotation marks, and spelling out words and months to abbreviations, The Survivor text is pithier. Which is better for reading is a bit of an open question; as a digest Saturn had to be divided into two columns per page, which might encourage shorter paragraphs, more frequent breaks, and the more streamlined experience italics give…or perhaps Derleth changed his mind.
What was I to make of these curious instructions? (SA108)
What was I to make of these strange instructions? (SO86)
Case in point, “curious” and “strange” in this context are basically synonymous, so the changing from one to the other is essentially down to personal preference rather than any kind of artistic or editorial justification. These are the kind of changes in word choice that you might expect to see either from an editor determined to change something or a writer that just liked to fiddle.
Most of the differences in “The Murky Glass” and “The Gable Window” are like that: formatting, word choice, a little cutting or rearranging, mostly in The Survivor and Others text. There are a handful of typos as well: “scratching” (“Murky”) becomes “cratching” (“Gable”); “Shanteks” (“Murky”) becomes “Shantaks” (“Gable”), “myths” (“Murky”) becomes “Mythos” (“Gable”), “subterranean” (“Murky”) becomes “subterrene” (“Gable”) and other bits like that. There is one rather significant and noticeable difference, however, in a particular passage:
These books were in various languages; they bore titles such as the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the . Celano Fragments, the Cultes des Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan a photostatic copy of the Necronomicon, by an Arabian, Abdul Alhazred, and many others, some of them apparently in manuscript form. (SA109)
These books were in various languages; they bore titles such as the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the Dhol Chants, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, the Celano Fragments, the Cultes des Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan a photostatic copy of the Necronomicon, by an Arabian, Abdul Alhazred, and many others, some of them apparently in manuscript form. (SO87)
Either Derleth decided to insert several eldritch tomes in “The Gable Window,” or whoever was setting text or type for “The Murky Glass” dropped a line; given the odd period right before Celano, I lean toward the latter. Little printing errors like that just happen sometimes.
Even taken all together, the sum of these small textual differences do not substantially impact the story; this is not a Mythos equivalent of the Wicked Bible, but it shows that you should not take a given version of a text for granted. How do you know that the text you are reading in a Lovecraft book is what Lovecraft set down—or is by Lovecraft at all? How many editors have had their hands on it? Textual errors and variations have propped up and been carried forward…sometimes for decades and through multiple versions. In many online versions of “Herbert West—Reanimator” for example, you will find the text prefaced with a spurious quote from Dracula—which was not in Lovecraft’s original text or any major subsequent printing; it appears to have been added on to a freely available text on the internet sometime in the 2000s and to have spread from there, even into print editions that use Wikisource as their source.
You might well imagine how a reader in the 1950s might have felt as they sat down with their “new” book of Lovecraft stories, and wondered to themselves: did Lovecraft write this?
The point is all the more cogent because “The Murky Glass”/”The Gable Window” is one of Derleth’s most poorly-received “posthumous collaborations.” We’ve focused so far on textual criticism and publishing history, but we haven’t discussed the content of the story or how it fits into the larger body of Mythos fiction. To understand that, let’s rewind back to how this story came to be.
After writing “The Survivor” (which was based on some actual notes Lovecraft left for a story of that name), Derleth turned to Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book, which had been preserved by R. H. Barlow, for inspiration. Two plot-germs probably inspired “The Gable Window”:
Something seen at Oriel window of forbidden room in ancient manor house. (29)
Pane of peculiar-looking glass from a ruined monastery reputed to have harbored devil-worship set up in modern house at edge of wild country. Landscape looks vaguely and unplaceably wrong through it. It has some unknown time-distorting quality, and comes from a primal, lost civilization. Finally, hideous things in other world seen through it. (41)
Derleth identified the second entry (“Pane of…”) as the genesis for the story in The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (1959); Derleth scholar John Haefele adds the other (“Something seen…”) as a probable inspiration in A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos 224, and I have to agree (the distinction between “Oriel” and “Gable” in this case being close enough for amateurs to mistake one for the other). The story is, although this is not immediately apparent, a tie-in to Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” since the protagonist’s uncle is Henry Akeley—Derleth would be the first pasticheur to exploit genealogical connections, adding cousins to Lovecraft’s family trees in stories like “The Shuttered Room,” though far from the last.
The set-up for the plot is familiar: a relation has died, and the heir must goes to the old house and finds they’ve inherited a bit of a Mythos mess. Lovecraft himself never used this exact formulation, though “The Moon-Bog” and “The Rats in the Walls” both involve an heir rebuilding an ancestral manse or castle. Derleth had already written something similar in “The Return of Hastur” and “The Whippoorwills in the Hills,” and would use the premise again in “The Seal of R’lyeh,” “The Peabody Heritage,” “The Shuttered Room,” “The Shadow on the Attic,” “The Horror from the Middle Span,” and “The Watchers out of Time.” It is ultimately a variation on the haunted house tale, or even of the Gothic inheritance of an ancestral house or castle, and there are a million different variations on that familiar theme, and Derleth was well-versed in such tales.
The pseudo-haunting takes its time to develop. While not every “posthumous collaboration” that Derleth wrote was explicitly part of the Mythos, “The Gable Window” was intended to be such a story, and so Derleth is careful to place it not far from Dunwich and Arkham, to drop references to Miskatonic University, and to build up to the succession of revelations. His prose doesn’t try to capture Lovecraft’s more ultraviolet style, and there is at least one passage which is very un-Lovecraftian:
No matter how I tried, I failed utterly to catch any sight of the cat, though I was disturbed in this fashion fully half a dozen times, until I was so upset that, had I caught sight of the cat, I would probably have shot it.
August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 83
It is always difficult to tell with Derleth whether certain details are drawn from his great familiarity with Lovecraft’s correspondence and life and how many are original to him. The name of the cat “Little Sam,” for example, recalls “Little Sam Perkins,” one of the neighborhood cats that Lovecraft doted on while he lived at 66 College St. If Derleth had incorporated some of Lovecraft’s material from his letters about Sam Perkins, we could say for certain, but Derleth didn’t. Instead, Little Sam occupies largely the same purpose in the text as the cat in “The Rats in the Walls” does, as an animal attuned to the strange dangers in the house.
As the story progresses, Derleth presents his interpretation of the Mythos. Keep in mind, “The Gable Window” was originally intended for magazine publication, and not necessarily to an audience that would be immediately familiar with any of the preceeding Mythos fiction, so this is a point he tends to bring up more often and more explicitly in his 1940s and 1950s fiction to introduce it to new audiences; when reading chunks of his fiction at once, it can get a bit repetitive:
It was the old credo of the force of light against the force of darkness, or at least, so I took it to be. Did it matter whether you called it God and the Devil, or the Elder Gods and the ancient Ones, Good and Evil or such names as the Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, the only named Elder God, or these of the Great Old Ones—the idiot god, Azathoth, that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity; Yog-Sothoth, the all-in-one and one-in-all, subject to neither the laws of time nor of space, co-existent with all time and con-terminous with space; Nyarlathotep, the messenger of the Ancient Ones; Great Cthulhu, waiting to rise again from hidden R’lyeh in the depths of the sea; the unspeakable Hastur, Lord of the Interstellar Spaces; Shub-Niggurath, the black goat of the woods with a thousand young?
August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 83
Derleth was capable of subtlety in his fiction and the slow and careful development of mood, but this recital or regurgitation of blasphemous names and casting the whole implicitly complex artificial mythology into a Manichaean dichtomy is not an example of it. This tendency to cram everything into a story is very fannish, but in the case of this story it also serves as build-up for the next section: the reader is basically given a crash course on the Mythos so that they can be prepped to see where the story is heading. Mythos fans can pat themselves on the back for catching the references, and new readers can at least sort of follow along.
In portraying the Mythos this way, Derleth also repeats many of the inherent prejudices in Mythos fiction in brief and in miniature. For example:
There were also more recognizable human beings, however distorted—stunted and dwarfed Oreintals living in a cold place, to judge by their attire, and a race born of miscegenation, with certain characteristics of the batrachian beings, yet unmistakably human.
August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 90
The “stunted and dwarfed Orientals” are probably the Tcho-Tcho; the “race born of msicegenation” probably the inhabitants of Innsmouth. It’s notable that Derleth is more explicit in his language here than Lovecraft ever was in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and he gets even more explicit on the next page when he writes: “Deep Ones together with humans of partly similar origin: hybrid white” (91). The dry technical nature of the language robs the idea of Innsmouth hybrids of their mystery and mystique; he might as well be describing a creole colony…and that kind of misses the entire point of Lovecraft’s story. “Innsmouth” presented miscegnation (without ever using the word) as the intended accepted explanation for why the people of Innsmouth were hated and feared by their neighbors; racial discrimination was the red herring that concealed the much weirder revelation that the horror wasn’t a mixed race Pacific Islander or Asian community, but something altogether less homo sapiens.
Like many of Lovecraft’s stories, there isn’t an excess of plot. The use of the journal excerpts allows Derleth to indulge himself a bit in describing exotic landscapes and beings, and to build mood. The result is something of an orgy of evidence for the Mythos, touching on many different entities and places, some of which would be unfamiliar to Mythos fans. Yet at the same time, there’s a certain laziness to Derleth’s approach. Why would the words that activate the glass from Leng be “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn?” That is the motto of the Cthulhu cult in “The Call of Cthulhu,” but here Derleth uses it where another writer of a more mundane demonology might have used “abracadabra.”
Pedantic nitpicking aside, “The Gable Window” comes to a well-telegraphed end…and a relatively light legacy. Readers of “The Murky Glass” in Saturn might have been intrigued by the idea of an extraterrestrial glass that showed alien worlds, which has had its fair number of variations in fantasy already (e.g. “The Wonderful Window” by Lord Dunsany), but Mythos fans took very little notice of it. Derleth introduces the Sand-Dwellers in this story, for example, but never used or referenced them elsewhere again, and very few other authors have picked up the threads of this story (most notably Adam Niswander in his 1998 novel The Sand Dwellers). The biggest impact the story had has been on the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, which gladly incorporated both the Glass from Leng and the Sand-Dwellers into its version of the Mythos, and has continued to make some small use of them in every edition since.
While it is impossible to say if Derleth himself was unsatisfied with “The Gable Window” as written, but there is the suggestion that he might have been inspired to make another attempt:
This glass also has attributes similar to the tower window in The Lurker at the Threshold, which Derleth derived from Lovecraft’s “The Rose Window” prose fragment. Referring to the fragment as the “notes relative to the mysterious window or ‘carved surface with convex glass circle seven inches in diameter in centre’ related primarily to a story to be set on ‘Central Hill, Kingsport’ in the ancient house of ‘Edward Orne,'” Derleth admits how, “This story remains in essence to be written, since not enough was borrowed from this set of notes to invalidate a second story; and I mean to write it, possibly in novel length, time and circumstances permitting, under the title The Watchers Out of Time” (“Unfinished Manuscripts”).
Derleth would not live long enough to finish “The Watchers Out of Time,” but it may well be that the fragment of a story he did write owes something to “The Gable Window,” since he felt he hadn’t quite exhausted the possibilities of the glass from Leng. One had to wonder if the massive spread of televisions in United States homes after World War II played any influence in what was, in many ways, an eldritch audiovisual receiver.
Taken as a whole, “The Murky Glass”/”The Gable Window” represents much of what has soured Derleth’s reputation among Lovecraft fans and scholars: it is neither a terrible or a terrific weird tale, but a relatively average story that remixes some very familiar tropes and adds a smorgasboard of Mythos references, in addition to a somewhat preachy version of Derleth’s particular take on the Mythos (although it leaves out the elemental associations). Perhaps most damning, in every publication it was presented as a joint work with Lovecraft, who had nothing to do with it. Derleth was a competent weird fictioneer, and that’s what this story was intended to be when it was written with Weird Tales in mind: the Mythos as a reliable product, with Lovecraft’s name as a marketing draw.
Which is probably the most damning thing. Lovecraft was an auteur who took painstaking efforts with his stories, and whether or not you like his person or his prose, his stories represent a great deal of work from the initial plotting to the craft of writing. Derleth, by comparison, was much more restricted in the time and energy he could or would devote to his weird fiction, and while the stories might have been passable to pulp audiences in the 1950s, they are consistently outshone by Lovecraft’s actual fiction, and Derleth’s conception of the Mythos is shown to be much more limited and imperfect than that of his friend…as though viewed through a murky glass.
“The Murky Glass” was published in Saturn May 1957, and was not published again under that title. “The Gable Window” has been published in multiple anthologies and collections of Lovecraft and Derleth’s Mythos fiction, including The Watchers Out of Time (2008, Del Rey).
Harry Houdini, the great illusionist, escapist, and debunker of spiritualists was born into a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1874 as Erik Weisz. In 1878, the family emigrated to the United States of America, where the family name was changed to the German spelling, and he became Erich Weiss. His career in stage magic began in 1891, under the name Harry Houdini, in homage to the great French illusionist Robert Houdin. Over thirty years later Houdini was still performing and branching out into new ventures.
After the success of his magazine College Humor, in 1922 entrepreneur J. C. Henneberger partnered with his friend J. M. Lansinger to form the Rural Publishing Corporation. Their initial product was a pulp magazine under the editorial guidance of Edwin Baird: Detective Tales. Struggling to find its place in the detective pulp field against competition like Black Mask, the firm was refinanced and the pair launched a second magazine, also under Baird’s editorial guidance in 1923: Weird Tales.
Henneberger was known to be hands-on with editorial decisions at Weird Tales, and with a noted interest in H. P. Lovecraft. However, Weird Tales also struggled to find its audience, and the first year of publication was marked by changes in the size and frequency of the magazine’s publication. The magazine was not a success, and the debt piled up.
Now long after I had inaugurated Weird Tales, I had a call by Houdini at my Chicago office; he expressed more than usual enthusiasm for the magazine, and the meeting resulted in a friendship lasting until his untimely death a few years later. He often regaled me with experiences of his that rivaled anything I had ever read in books. Several of these I published, but they were written in such a prosaic style that they evoked little comment.
J.C. Henneberger to Robert A. W. Lowndes, Magazine of Horror (May 1969) 117
The first issue of Weird Tales has a cover date of March 1923. The Weird Tales offices were in Indianapolis, but Rural Publishing Co. was incorporated in Chicago and Baird would have his own office there. In May 1923, Houdini headlined at the State-Lake Theatre in Chicago, so he was definitely in the city at the time, and there is no reason to doubt Henneberger’s account.
The first few issues of WT could hardly have been impressive: an eclectic mix of fiction, unsigned strange-but-true filler articles, small advertisements, and indifferent art. Yet the May 1923 issue (on the stands in April), contained several small essays related to spiritualism: “Woman Receives Poems from Spirit World,” “Woman’s Spirit Is Photographed,” “Deaf and Blind Students Perform Miracles,” “Neighbors See ‘Sacred Heart’ in Girl’s Death Room”—and perhaps that caught Houdini’s attention; Houdini who had been making a name for himself by exposing fraudulent spiritualists and spirit-photographers.
Whatever the case, Houdini and Henneberger came to some kind of arrangement. The exact details are unknown; any contracts or promissory notes have not come to light. Yet in the same month it was reported in an article about Houdini:
Even now he is connected with the publishing business, Weird Tales, a magazine of 150,000 circulation, being one of his interests.
The circulation count appears to be inflated, but another account of Houdini apparently claiming a financial interest in Weird Tales occurs in a memoir of H. P. Lovecraft:
One whom he helped was Harry Houdini, the magician. I went to Boston on a weekend to see Houdini’s show. The second half of it was an exposé of spiritualist fakery and Houdini called for ten people to come up on the stage and assist. Among others I volunteered and was sitting there when various people were called by name out of the audience and were told much about themselves concerning their personal lives. I thought that this was a put-on, until my own name was called.
He said, “Your name is Harold Munn, you write under the name of H. Warner Munn and you write for Weird Tales?” I was staggered by his apparently occult knowledge, but admitted that this was so. “Well,” Houdini went on, “did you know that I was part owner of Weird Tales?” I didn’t.
“It is so. Now, do any of you remember having some friend that saw my show last week and telling them that you were coming here today?”
Each one of us did. “Those friends were asked to give me this information, as I shall ask others today to tell me about anyone that they know will be here next week and I shall surprise them then as I have surprised you this afternoon. That is one of the spiritualist tricks. It always works.”
Later I learned from Lovecraft that Houdini had indeed put money into the struggling magazine, after he had had a story, “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” published there under his own name.
Houdini was a stockholder in Weird Tales before Wright took it over–and possibly afterward.
W. Paul Cook, “In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale75-76
Where Cook would have gotten this tidbit, if not from Lovecraft himself, is unknown; Lovecraft does not mention Houdini being a stockholder or having a financial interest in Weird Tales in any of his published letters. Henneberger never mentions Houdini investing in Weird Tales either, but in one letter he does imply that Houdini was at least a potential investor:
Another man, Harry Houdini, died in . He was in the process of paying off some half-million dollars lost on motion pictures he made. Had he lived, he would have been an active associate of Weird Tales.
Houdini had formed his own company, the Houdini Picture Association, to produce two silent films starring himself, The Man from Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923), before abandoning Hollywood as unprofitable. It’s not clear if he would have had the funds to bail out Weird Tales, which was bleeding money in 1923…but Houdini had terrific name recognition that might help save the magazine. Perhaps the initial plan was to capitalize on Houdini’s association with the magazine, and later Houdini would become part-owner.
Whatever the details of the arrangement were, we know at least this much: Houdini would lend his name and reputation to the magazine for a series of articles, essays, and ghost-written stories. Presumably, Houdini would have received some pay for this, but he might also have believed he and Henneberger were retooling the magazine into something more like an outlet for Houdini’s fame and spiritualist-debunking efforts. As evidence of what this version of Weird Tales might have looked like can be seen in this full-page advertisement that appears in the opening pages of Elliott’s Last Legacy (1923), a book of illusionist material by James W. Elliott, but edited by and published via the influence of Houdini.
If this doesn’t sound a great deal like Weird Tales as fans now know it, but it does jive with some comments that Lovecraft made in his letters:
[Henneberger] spoke of a coming reoganisation to include work from the magician Houdini and the elaboration of gruesome crime material at the expense of fiction, reducing the latter to a novel and two or three short stories per issue.
He will introduce a column by the magician Houdini, and wants to cut down the fiction to one novel and two or three short stories per issue, filling the rest of the space with written-up morbid crimes of real life. . . .
Weird Tales would begin to make these changes with the introduction of the “Ask Houdini” column. In general outline the magazine greatly resembles another pulp that would be one of WT‘s short-lived competitors: Tales of Magic and Mystery (1927-1928), edited by illusionist and legendary pulp writer Walter Gibson, which only lasted five issues but included a number of stories and articles on prominent magicians such as Houdini—as well as the first publication of H. P. Lovecraft’s “Cool Air.”
Yet that version of Weird Tales never came to be.
What did happen is that in May 1924, Detective Tales changed its title to Real Detective Tales, and the magazine shifted to be closer to the first-person “true” style of the Macfadden magazines like True Story. The mounting debt and Weird Tales‘ ongoing failure was a problem; and the Houdini pieces do not appear to have been enough to save the magazine from financial difficulties. In early 1924, Baird was quietly fired as editor of Weird Tales; Henneberger offered Lovecraft the editorship. When Lovecraft declined, the editorship went to Farnsworth Wright, who was first reader of the magazine (another reader, Otis Adelbert Kline, claimed to have quietly edited the May-Jun-July 1924 “anniverary” issue).
A split occurred within Rural Publishing Co.; Lansinger got Real Detective Tales (with Baird as editor) and College Humor, and Henneberger got Weird Tales, which was reorganized under the Popular Fiction Publishing Company. Weird Tales‘ largest creditor, the Cornelius Printing Company, agreed to convert its debt into a majority share of the new company—and while Henneberger remained on paper in ownership of the company, by agreement he kept out of the management, probably to avoid the editorial conflicts and format changes he had with Baird during Weird Tales‘ turbulent first year.
These business changes meant that whatever promises were made in Chicago in 1923, Houdini’s involvement with Weird Tales would not last past the 1924 Anniversary issue, which was the last published by Rural Publishing Co. If Houdini thought he had bought a stake in it, that stake apparently ended with Rural; if Houdini thought Weird Tales was going to reformat as “the Weirdest True Stories ever written,” he had not reckoned with the new editor. Farnsworth Wright, who assumed editorship of Weird Tales and without Henneberger’s interference, guided WT in a different direction entirely. After Summer 1924, Houdini had no more direct involvement with Weird Tales.
Yet for three issues, Weird Tales published stories (“The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt,” “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover,” and “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”) and articles (“Ask Houdini”) nominally by Houdini…and those are worth investigating.
It is taken for granted that essentially all of the material that appeared under Houdini’s name in Weird Tales was not actually written by him. H. P. Lovecraft goes into quite some details in his letters about how he wrote “Under the Pyramids,” and is honest about his work as a ghostwriter for Houdini. Since Lovecraft did not make any similar confession regarding other work ascribed to Houdini at Weird Tales, he can also be ruled out of writing the rest. There must have been at least one other ghost for Houdini besides Lovecraft; possibly more than one.
For the other stories and works, we have no such direct account, and are left with speculation—but some of that speculation is interesting. So it is worth examining those most likely to have ghosted for Houdini at Weird Tales
C. M. Eddy, Jr.
ghost-writer unknown (may be either Walter Gibson or C. M. Eddy, Jr.)
Clifford M. Eddy, Jr. was a native of Providence, Rhode Island, and an associate of H. P. Lovecraft. They had known each other since 1918, but Lovecraft only met C. M. Eddy and his wife Muriel Eddy in 1923. The young couple were hard up for cash, and Eddy wished to break into the pulp fiction game; Lovecraft assisted him in revising four stories which were published in Weird Tales: “Ashes” (Mar 1924), “The Ghost-Eater” (Apr 1924), “The Loved Dead” (May-Jun-Jul 1924), and “Deaf, Dumb, and Blind” (Apr 1925). The first three stories, perhaps coincidentally, overlapped with the three Houdini issues at Weird Tales. So we know for a fact that Eddy was writing and publishing in Weird Tales at the appropriate time.
It is also known that Eddy did ghostwriting and other work for Houdini outside of Weird Tales. In a 1963 newspaper article about Eddy, it is written:
Houdini at that time had a stable of ghost writers. Mr. Lovecraft was one of them, and before long Mr. Eddy heard from the master magician. He began preparing for publication material supplied by Houdini which appeared in print under Houdini’s name, some in magazines Houdini owned.
The great entertainer was not without a business sense, evidently. In fact, Mr. Eddy sold booklets about the stage wizard in the lobby during performances.
“I used to stay at his house in New York quite often,” Mr. Eddy recounted. “he was one of the swellest guys I ever met. A lot of people hated him because he was agianst fakes and mediums. Some accused him of being in league with the devil.”
“I used to be an investigator for him, you know,” he said. “Yes, he had them all around the country. He’d send me to interview various mediums and he’d evaluate the reports. He’d challenge them to come onto the stage and show that they weren’t fakes. Most of them never came…the others regretted it. His investigators always worked a town ahead of his show.”
George Popkin, “He Wrote of the Supernatural” in the Providence Evening Bulletin (25 Nov 1963) 37
Magazines that Eddy might have ghostwritten for include M-U-M (Magic-Unity-Might), the official organ of the Society of American Magicians during Houdini’s stint as president, although it is not clear if any works in there are attributable to Eddy. Someone selling booklets in the lobby of Houdini’s shows is also not farfetched; such enterprise was common in accounts of Houdini’s shows in the 1920s.
The claim that Eddy was one of Houdini’s investigators is also plausible. Houdini had many investigators that “worked” mediums ahead of time, mostly young women but also sometimes men. The accounts of one investigator were published in a series of newspaper articles in 1929, and compiled as Houdini’s “Girl Detective” The Real-life Ghost-Busting Adventures of Rose Mackenberg, and give an overview of the kind of work it was. Others of Houdini’s investigators are mentioned in biographies of his life; for example William Kalush and Larry Sloman in The Secret Life of Houdinistate that Eddy was one of Houdini’s investigators and filed many field reports (461, 502); they don’t cite their source for this information, however.
Eddy’s wife Muriel later wrote:
My husband spent some time investigating Spiritualism at Lake Pleasant, Massachusetts, for Harry Houdini, and when he came back home with much data about some of the mediums he’d met, Lovecraft came over to see us and seemed much interested in the subject.
Muriel’s anecdote suggests C. M. Eddy’s investigation would have happened circa Summer 1926. In August of that year, the New England Spiritualist Camp had its annual session at Lake Pleasant. It would not have been improbable for Houdini to have hired an investigator to have a look at the various mediums there.
While not all of C. M. Eddy’s claims with regards to working for Houdini can be verified, the claims he makes are not excessive or unbelievable. He is at least a candidate for ghosting Houdini’s stories at Weird Tales. However, there is the tricky issue of timing: both Muriel Eddy’s account and the 1963 article suggest that Eddy only began ghosting for Houdini after Lovecraft introduced the two men. Lovecraft’s letters support this timeline:
On this day I received a letter from Houdini–who was playing at the Albee and stopping at the Crown–offering to assist me in finding a position on his return to N.Y. I had given Eddy a letter of introduction to him, and the two had had some very exhaustive discussions, during which the magician expressed much eagerness to be of assistance to us both.
Other letters from Lovecraft state that both Lovecraft and Eddy did ghostwriting work for Houdini from 1925-1926, including an aborted book titled The Cancer of Superstition…but there is nothing to indicate that Eddy had any contact with Houdini prior to Lovecraft’s introduction in Autumn 1924. This would seem to rule Eddy out as ghosting for Houdini at Weird Tales from 1923-1924.
Walter B. Gibson
ghost-writer unknown (may be either Walter Gibson or C. M. Eddy, Jr.)
On the surface, Walter B. Gibson might seem a reasonable guess for Houdini’s ghost in Weird Tales. An accomplished stage magician, an incredibly prolific pulp fiction writer, and a known associate of Houdini in the mid-1920s, Gibson is also known to have ghostwritten books for Houdini. Further, Gibson was the editor of Tales of Magic and Mystery, and his (often unsigned) articles in that pulp include “Houdini” (Dec 1927), “Houdini in Europe” (Jan 1928), “Daring Exploits of Houdini” (Feb 1928), “Further Famous Escapes of Harry Houdini” (Mar 1928), and “Houdini’s Rendition of Mazeppa’s Ride” (Apr 1928), so he certainly had the knowledge and ability to ghost for Houdini in Weird Tales…but the timing isn’t right.
J. Randolph Cox outlines the problem in Man of Magic and Mystery: A Guide to the Work of Walter B. Gibson: Gibson’s first ghostwritten work for Houdini was Popular Card Tricks, which was planned as the first in a series of books on stage magic that Gibson would compile and write, to be published under Houdini’s name. However, the book was actually published after Houdini’s death (under Gibson’s own name). Thomas J. Shimeld in Walter B. Gibson and The Shadow devotes chapter 5 to Gibson’s relationship with Houdini, and in that fuller narrative confirms that Gibson did not begin ghostwriting for Houdini until a couple of months before the famous escapist’s death in 1926.
So while Gibson would appear to be a natural fit, unless some new evidence comes out revealing he began ghosting for Houdini years earlier, Gibson has to be ruled out.
I believe that Satrap Pharnabazus ghost-wrote the other two Houdini stories in W.T., did he not?
“Satrap Pharnabazus” was one of Lovecraft’s pet names for Farnsworth Wright, who had begun his career at Weird Tales as a writer, his story “The Closing Hand” appearing in the very first issue. Within the year, Wright became “first reader” for the magazine, assisting editor Edwin Baird with reading through the manuscripts sent in by prospective weird talers, alongside fellow writer-cum-reader Otis Adelbert Kline. When Rural Publishing Co. and Weird Tales were reorganized, it was Wright who ended up as editor of the re-formed magazine—and his signed fiction dropped off, naturally enough, though he would still publish a few pieces under pseudonyms (“Francis Hard”) and would quietly edit or even translate other works as necessary.
Where Lovecraft got this idea is unknown; he might have heard it directly from Wright, Houdini, Henneberger, or Baird, or indirectly as scuttlebutt from any Weird Tales author, including E. Hoffmann Price. Regrettably, Price’s reply to this letter appears non-extant, so we don’t even know if Price confirmed or denied Lovecraft’s memory. Of the proposed ghosts for Houdini, Farnsworth Wright at least was intimately involved with the magazine at exactly the correct time. Wright might be a fairly logical person for Henneberger to turn to ghost a Houdini tale. John Locke lays out the matter well:
If Henneberger was in an extreme hurry to finalize the March issue on time, then the ghost was likely to be someone in Henneberger’s immediate orbit, someone who could be dealt with in person. That creates three valid candidates: Baird, Kline, and Wright. All had published fiction; all were competent wordsmiths. Kline never hinted at it later, when keeping the secret would have been purposeless, so it’s convenient to rule him out. Baird is a possibility, especially if he accepted the assignment as part of a reduction of his editing responsibilities. In fact, in 1945 Henneberger claimed that Wright ghosted “Spirit Fakers,” but by then Henneberger had a number of specific memories of the early days of Weird Tales which are provably false, so we are reluctant to accept any of them without corroboration. If his memory was correct, it certainly would make a nice—and nicely benign—addition to Wright’s list of secrets. The argument against Wright is that if he took over editing for the April issue, he may not have had the time for the additional burden.
Without some independent corroboration, it is still speculation to say that Farnsworth Wright ghosted for Houdini at Weird Tales, but he is at least a strong candidate.
The fourth president of the Society of American Magicians, Oscar Teale had been an ally of Houdini at the Society, had done an act exposing fraudulent mediums, and became Houdini’s private secretary (Houdini!!! The Career of Erich Weiss 213-217). Among his other duties, Teale is known to have been one of Houdini’s principal ghostwriters, describing their method of collaboration as:
I have never known [Houdini] to dictate more than suggestive thought, mere fragments, followed by instruction to ‘Whip it into shape‘ and the ‘other fellow’ invariably did the real composition work.
Teale also later claimed to have revised Elliott’s Last Legacy (1923) and ghostwritten A Magician Among the Spirits(1924), among many other works (Houdini!!! The Career of Erich Weiss 310-311). While no source claims Teale had any involvement with the works ghosted for Houdini for Weird Tales, as one of Houdini’s most intimate and frequent ghostwriters, who was deeply involved with working for Houdini in 1923-1924, Teale should at least be considered a possible candidate.
There is one last candidate, a writer who has been completely overlooked, someone with significant experience in writing spooky stories, someone who had been contributing to Rural publications since late 1922, and someone who was readily available to Henneberger. The author who fits that profile is Harold Ward.
The problem with ghostwriting and detecting pseudonyms is that as much as we might like to think we can identify an author’s work via their style, or some detail coded into their stories with parallels in the author’s life or other work, we do not know if they are actually the author for a given work unless there is some positive evidence—like a cashed check—that it is so. Locke’s argument for Ward as a candidate rests not on a contemporary’s claim (as Lovecraft & Henneberger for Wright), or historical association with Houdini as part of his stable of ghostwriters (as for Eddy, Gibson, and Teale), but on stylistic analysis:
There is one specific piece of evidence tha ties Ward to the second Houdini story. the solution to the mystery in “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” is that the deceased fiancé, a Chicago man, had an identical twin brother in Wyoming who his betrothed had never seen. The twin “was slowly dying of consumption and had gone west to work on a ranch in hope that the high altitude would help him.” As part of an insurance swindle, he throws his lot in with the charlatan. By smearing his face with phoshorescent paint, he passes for his ghostly brother at the séance. Harold Ward was not a charlatan nor did he have a twin brother, but for three different periods he traveled west, to South Dakota as a tot for his mother’s health, and twice to Colorado for his own. It’s natural that in fleshing out Houdini’s story ideas he would have drawn on his own past for inspiration; likewise, it’s improbable that Wright, or one of the other candidates, would have picked a plot device so particular to Ward’s life.
The problem is, by similar arguments one may as easily paint H. P. Lovecraft as the hidden author of “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover”; after all, Lovecraft’s cousin Phillips Gamwell had gone west (to Colorado, not Wyoming) while suffering for tuberculosis in hopes that the high altitude might help him, and in his later story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward an identical twin ancestor returns from the dead to fool the living into believing he is his own lineal descendant. Similar cases could probably be made for nearly any Weird Tales writer of the period; there is no “smoking gun” in “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” or “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” that can tie those stories to any particular writer to the exclusion of all others.
Basing any analysis on stylistic details of the plot assumes they are the creation of the ghost rather than Houdini, and in fact we know nothing of how much detail Houdini went into in giving the outline and solution of the story, if at all. It is impossible to determine who the ghost is from the style or details of the works themselves, because we have no idea where Houdini ends and the ghost begins. Perhaps a mathematician could perform a rigorous stylometric analysis and determine that “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” bears a statistically likely similarity to the work of Harold Ward of the period, but until that happens Occam’s razor suggests that the stylistic detail Locke noted may well be coincidental rather than evidentiary.
For all the candidates addressed so far, emphasis has been placed on their familiarity or association with Houdini and Weird Tales, but in point of fact the pieces ghostwritten for Houdini in WT did not require in-depth personal knowledge of the illusionist to write, nor did the individual need have been intimately associated with the magazine—although that would certainly help. It is not even clear how many ghostwriters were involved, beyond Lovecraft—for all we know each story and piece may have been ghosted by different writers. To better understand the role of Houdini’s ghosts in Weird Tales, it is best to look at the ghosted works.
Ask Houdini (Mar, Apr, May-Jun-Jul 1924)
The announcement of a new feature was made in the March 1924 issue of Weird Tales. Write-in columns asking for expertise or advice had been popular in newspapers for years, and pulps like Adventure and Wonder Stories would make a point of having a “panel of experts” to answer readers’ questions; it was a good way both to fill column inches and encourage reader engagement. After all, if you wrote into the magazine, you would probably want to pick up the next issue to read the answer to your question.
Weird Tales had already tried a letter column called “The Cauldron” in the Jun , Jul-Aug, Sep, and Oct 1923 issues where readers wrote in on their “true strange” tales and encounters, “conducted” by Preston Langley Hickey. The final entry noted that: “no more manuscripts dealing with ghosts or any phase of spiritualism will be considered, unless they are of unusual merit.” Whether this was any reflection of Houdini’s influence at Weird Tales is unclear, but if “The Cauldron” attracted enough readers to justify its page space, certainly “Ask Houdini” could do better. Houdini had already done something like this in “Houdini’s Answers on Psychic Phenomena” (Washington Times, 23 Aug 1922) and other similar articles, and the Weird Tales feature would be very similar.
In the April 1924 issue of Weird Tales, seven letters were answered in the “Ask Houdini” column; in the Anniversary issue, which is really three issues in one, sixteen. It is an open question as to how many of these letters might have been authentic, and whether Houdini actually answered any of them or if they were ghostwritten.
The May-Jun-Jul 1924 issue, in particular, includes a couple of very long letters which recount some of Houdini’s deeds and which are virtually small tales in and of themselves. It is a dirty but open secret that many magazine and comic book letter columns might be fabricated in whole or in part, since the whole point is to serve the needs of the magazine. Weird Tales was not, as far as is known, generally in the practice of faking letters to the editor, though Hickey no doubt revised and re-wrote some submissions for “The Cauldron”…but there is always the possibility, and these longer letters at least seem suspicious, especially as they seem very different, editorially, from how letters were handled by Weird Tales in “The Eyrie,” the usual letter column.
“Houdini’s” replies appear to be overall accurate to his genuine beliefs with regards to spiritualism and psychic phenomenon, repeating well-known points of view that jive with (or might have been gleaned from) dozens of newspaper articles, or even Houdini’s 1924 book A Magician Among the Spirits—which is promoted a little among “Houdini’s” answers, as might be expected. There is little to nothing given away in terms of details of stage magic, but that is not unusual for Houdini at this point either.
A close reading of the answers reveals no detail that only Houdini could have known at the time; while it is possible Houdini whipped out these brief replies on his own, they could also have been fairly easily put together by a competent ghostwriter with access to a copy of Houdini’s latest book. Houdini is known to have gifted at least one copy to a Weird Tales author: H. P. Lovecraft’s library included a copy of A Magician Among the Spirits that bears the inscription:
To my friend Howard Lovecraft, Best Wishes, Houdini. “My brain is the key that sets me free.”
“The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” (Mar, Apr 1924)
Weird Tales has never been devoted solely to fantasy and horror fiction. Although never a main staple of the magazine, science fiction and weird crime stories were important parts of the Weird Tales offerings to readers, and at different times the magazine would compete with detective pulps, science fiction pulps, and the weird terror or “shudder” pulps. Regular readers would not necessarily be surprised or disappointed if they picked up an issue containing a story of Jules de Grandin, Seabury Quinn’s popular occult detective, and it turned out that any apparent supernatural element was only a gang of criminals with a very weird theme or racket—like most episodes of Scooby Doo. The mystery and weirdness were enticement enough for most.
This is important because “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” is fundamentally a different kind of story for Weird Tales. Told from the first-person perspective of Houdini relating an actual adventure he had supposedly undergone many years before, Houdini is adamant from the outset that there is no supernatural element to the tale, that it was always a gang of criminals using phony séances for a blackmail scheme. The reader knows, too, that Houdini must survive relatively intact because he is telling the story. So the narrative tension in the tale lies not in the mystery of what is going on, exactly, but in how Houdini manages to get himself out of this one.
For a competent pulp writer, this is a premise that could quickly become a formula, like William Hope Hodgson’s occult detective Carnacki relaying the details of each successful case after dinner to a handful of selected guests. The skill of the ghostwriter in this story is less in the plot than in some of the incidental details. John Locke notes:
“Spirit Fakers” catches Houdini on one of his European tours. He is approached by “Countess D—,” who is being blakcmailed by fake mediums on account of her late father, “Count D—,” who was known to kidnap women and girls and imprison them in “Castle D—” in Transylvania. Obviously, the details are meant to invoke Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
While not every detail in the story jives with Stoker’s novel, there are more little hints in the story that suggest Locke is correct in that the ghostwriter took inspiration from Dracula. The way Houdini scales the walls of the castle is reminiscent of Count Dracula’s method as described by Jonathan Harker, for example, and like Dracula, the Countess D— drives her own coach to bring Houdini to the castle, which is perched on a cliff above a river as it is in the novel.
The Houdini material is carefully accurate in many respects: the use of trumpets by fake mediums, for example, and the reference to Houdini’s swimming ability as featured in the film Terror Island (1920). However, when it comes time to actually explain how Houdini makes some of his escapes, the story is exasperatingly vague—as, no doubt, the escapist was in real life. Whoever wrote the story must have had a decent grasp of Houdini’s act and some of his history (or at least, propaganda), but there is little real narrative tension. While it is a competently written story, the lack of tension or artistic description are weaknesses that make it almost forgettable. The most memorable part of it is a bit of speculation tacked on to the end of the narrative, suggesting that one of the villains was a Russian…no less than the “mad monk” Rasputin.
Weirdly enough, the detail of Rasputin’s involvement in the plot probably originated with Houdini himself. In some of his anti-spiritualist materials, Houdini makes the charge that Rasputin was a spirit-faker in the same mold as those frauds that Houdini exposed conducting séances. For example:
Rasputin in Error
[…] There is no doubt in my mind that Rasputin was the direct cause of the fall of Russia. He was a medium and claimed he could bring back any one of the Biblical characters. He held the Czar and more particularly the Czarina in his clutches, and it was through his mediumistic work that he called down vengeance on his own head.
One of the interesting details of the story is that when Houdini is handcuffed, the locks were plugged to prevent their easy picking. This was an actual detail in a contest between Houdini and another weird fictioneer, William Hope Hodgson, who shackled Houdini as part of a contest early in his career (see “Hodgson versus Houdini.”)
For reasons unknown, “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” was serialized in two parts, the first published in the March 1924 issue and the second in the April 1924 issue, where it was competing with another Houdini piece “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover.” Locke surmises this is because the ghostwriter did not finish the tale in time to be printed complete in a single issue (The Thing’s Incredible 139). The March ’24 issue includes no notice as to the contents of the next issue, so it’s impossible to say whether the appearance of the two Houdini pieces in the same issue was intentional or driven by editorial necessity.
“The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” (Apr 1924)
The shortest and most direct of the three Houdini narratives in Weird Tales, when compared to “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” and “Under the Pyramids,” “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” barely qualifies as an anecdote. Published in the April 1924 issue of Weird Tales, the best that can be said of the story is that it is brief and to the point. The writing lacks any atmosphere or fine description, and whatever tension or drama there is in the longer tales is entirely absent here; Houdini knows the false medium’s game from the start, and the use of a twin brother and insurance fraud for the twist ending are such especially pulpish touches even the writer lampshades it.
While the style of “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” may not point to any specific writer, the extremely different style between the two stories suggests that this might be the work of a different ghost writer than the one who wrote “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt.” If this was the case, the two different ghosts were still working from the same general assignment: both tales are first-person accounts of Houdini, with the same anti-false medium message. Houdini may well have provided the kernel of the tale, for the details on how the apparition entered the false room seem plausible enough to how such a scam might have worked.
The weirdest part of “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” is that despite its brevity, it was the cover story for that issue of Weird Tales—and that in itself says something about the shifting editorial focus that Houdini’s involvement brought to the magazine. Instead of focusing on something salacious or outré to draw readers to one of the more notable stories or novellas in the magazine, it focused on pushing the Houdini connection…and for a story which is fairly weak, and easily overshadowed by H. P. Lovecraft’s “The White Ape” (“Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”) and C. M. Eddy, Jr.’s “The Ghost-Eater.”
Given that it takes time for an artist to get an assignment, make a preliminary sketch for approval, do the painting, ship it in, and have it approved and laid out for cover art, it is possible that the cover was ordered and delivered before “Hoax” was completed—and that there was no time to mock up another cover, so “Hoax” had to be rushed to print as-is. This would not be the normal practice at Weird Tales, but the magazine was under unusual stress during this period, and “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” does feel like a tale a skilled ghostwriter could have done more with unless they were severely pressed for time.
“Under the Pyramids” (May-Jun-Jul 1924)
However, one day he unfolded one astounding story of a trip to Egypt that I knew only a Lovecraft or a Clark Ashton Smith could do justice to. Lovecraft did a masterful job on the outline and details I sent him, but asked not to have his name associated with publication. This pleased Houdini, who received full credit for Lovecraft’s work.
J.C. Henneberger to Robert A. W. Lowndes, Magazine of Horror (May 1969) 117
In 1910, Houdini and his wife passed through the Suez Canal on their way to Australia; in 1922, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings set off a wave of Egyptomania throughout the Western world. Weird Tales embraced this with articles on Tut’s tomb and ancient Egypt, and more credulous filler like “Reads Story of Mankind on Egyptian Coffins,” “Mummies Made by Electricity,” and “Author Sues ‘Egyptian Spook'” as well as stories like “Osiris” by Adam Hull Shirk (WT Jun 1923). The Old Testament tales of Moses’ contest with Pharaoh’s magicians lent a mystique of ancient occult heritage to the country and its monuments, one which occultists, illusionists, and weird fiction writers were all able to exploit at times. Houdini in Egypt was a very solid promise.
Yes, Child, Weird Tales is certainly shovin’ a lot of work at your aged Grandsire! Entire new job–to rewrite a strange narrative which the magician Houdini related orally to Henneberger; a narrative to be amplified and formulated, and to appear as a collaborated product–“By Houdini and H. P. Lovcraft.” Henneberger demanded a telegraphed reply as to whether or not I’d accept the job, and promises INSTANT PAY on delivery! I wired him an affirmative, and am now at work familiarising myself with the geographical details of the Cairo-Gizeh locality where the alleged adventure is set–especially with the singular subterranean place betwixt the Sphinx and the second pyramid known as “Campbell’s Tomb.”
It seems that once Houdini was in Cairo with his wife on a non-professional pleasure trip, when his Arab guide became involved in a street fight with another Arab. In accordance with custom, the natives decided to fight it out that night on the top of the Great Pyramid; and Houdini’s guide, knowing of the magician’s interest in exotic oddities, invited him to go along with his party of seconds and supporters. Houdini did, and saw a tame fistic encounter followed by an equally mechanical reconciliation. There was something off-colour and rehearsed about it all, and the wizard was hardly surprised when suddenly the frame-up was revealed, and he found himself bound and gagged by the two Arabs who had faked the combat. It had all been prearranged–the natives had heard of him as a mighty wizard of the West, and were determined to test his powers in a land where wizards once ruled supreme. Without ceremony they took him to an aperture in the roof of the Temple of the Pharaoh’s (Campbell’s Tomb) where a sheer drop of fifty-three feet brings one to the floor of the nighted crypt which has but one normal entrance–a winding passage very far from this well-like opening. Producing a long rope, they lowered him into this abode of darkness and death and left him there without means of ascent–bound and gagged amidst the kingly dead, and ignorant of how to find the real exit. Hours later he staggered out of that real exit, free, yet shaken to the core with some hideous experience about which he hesitates to talk. It will be my job to invent that incident, and give it my most macabre touches. As yet, I don’t know how far I can go, since from a specimen Houdini story which Henneberger sent me I judge that the magician tries to pass off these Munchausens as real adventures. He’s supremely egotistical, as one can see at a glance. But in any case, I guess I can weave in some pretty shocking things…unsuspected lower caverns, a burning light amidst the balsam’d dead, or a terrible fate for the Arab guides who sought to frighten Our Hero. Maybe they can rig up as mummies to scare Houdini, and as such enter the crypt themselves…afterward being found dead with clawlike marks abut their throats which could not possibly have been made by the hands of Houdini. The more latitude Houdini allows me, the better yarn I can evolve–I’m asking Henneberger to get me as much as possible from the versatile showman.
Weird Tales typically only paid 1/2 cent or 1 cent per word for a story, and even then they only paid on publication. Henneberger’s offer (apparently $100 in advance and $100 on acceptance) was at the upper end of rates (the published story is about ~10,900 words, so it works out to almost 2 cents a word), but now Lovecraft wouldn’t have to wait months for a check. The promise of swift payment pushed Lovecraft into uncharacteristically swift action when it came to writing the story.
Campbell’s Tomb (now numbered G 9500) is a destroyed mastaba on the Giza plateau, between the Sphinx and the Khafre Pyramid. The underground chambers were excavated in the 19th century and provided the basis for claims of underground temples, and much other speculation besides. Working from the outline and details Henneberger had sent him, Lovecraft began to research and plan:
I’m hearin’ damn near every day from Henneberger–the owner of the outfit–&just had a special delivery order to collaborate on an Egyptian horror with this bimbo Houdini. It seems this boob was (as he relates) thrown into an antient subterraneous temple at Gizeh (whose location corresponds with the so-called “Campbell’s Tomb” (not Paul J.’s) betwixt the Sphinx & 2nd pyramid) by two treacherous Arab guides–all bound & gagged as on the circuit–(him, not the guides) & left to get out as best he might. Now Henneberger (who is beginning to do some personal directing over Bairdies’ head) wants me to put this into vivid narrative form–it having merely ben told orally by Hoodie. I’ve shot back a query as to how much sheer imagination Houdini’ll stand for–since I gotta idea he tries to put over his Munchausens as straight dope, in which he figures most heroically. But if Henny & Hoodie give me a free hand–then b’gawd I’ll pull a knockout! I’ll have them guides dress up as mummies to scare the bound Houdini–yet have Hoody escape without encountering ‘em. And then, when Hoodie takes the police to the scene, I’ll have the guides found dead–strangled–chok’d lifeless in that antient necropolis of the regal stiffs–with marks of claws on their throats…claws …claws…principal & subordinate clauses…which could not by any stretch of the imagination belong either to their own hands or to the hands of Houdini!!! Brrr…I hope them guys give me leave to plaster it on as it should be plastered! Henny says that Houdini wants to get in touch with me about some books or other when he gets back from a lecture tour.
Lovecraft’s initial elaboration of the plot depended on taking Houdini’s original anecdote as fairly accurate—even though the weird fiction writer was already determined that Houdini was exaggerating the incident like Baron Munchausen. Delvings into Egyptology, however, brought Lovecraft to one inescapable conclusion:
My Egyptian research at the library proved indubitably that Houdini’s story is all a fake, and that there is no great sunken temples on the Gizeh pyramid-plateau. That means that I must invent some unknown sunken temple–at the same time adhering to that literal verisimilitude on which Henneberger insists. It’s a tough job–and the result will be just as commercial as you claim your Desert Lich tale is….
“The Desert Lich” was advertised as “a necrophilic tale,” set in the Middle East, and eventually published in Weird Tales Nov 1924 issue. Lovecraft rushed to finish the written manuscript and type it up by the deadline…because he had some important business in New York. According to one source, he may have stopped to visit the Eddy’s before leaving Providence, where he had lived almost all his life:
He apologized for not offering us the typing job (he knew we could use the money, bringing up three children) and explained that his hen-scratching and many changed paragraphs, etc. would have been terribly difficult for us to decipher. There was a strange look in his eyes, usually so bright and full of compassion. […]
“I am going to try my luck in the big city,” he said, almost wearily. “I have lived with my two aunts so long, and the change will be good for them, too. I will take the manuscript personally to Harry Houdini and get his approval; then it must go speedily to the editor of Weird Tales… to meet the deadline. This artist is waiting to draw the cover design from the story. I twill be featured in the magazine, you know.”
Lovecraft makes no reference in his letters to any intent to visit Houdini in New York to show him the typescript. However, this may be because he had an unfortunate incident on the way to New York that precluded him from showing Houdini the typescript:
He was perturbed, however, because he had a “deadline” to meet–he showed us a freshly-typed manuscript which he had “ghost-written” for no less a personality than the late Harry Houdini, a weird experience of the master magician’s in far-off Egypt, scheduled to appear in a forthcoming issue of Weird Tales. He told us he hoped in the excitement of leaving Providence on an early morning train,he wouldn’t forget and leave the manuscript behind! It was imperative that the manuscript reach the editor by a certain time. Alas–for well-laid plans of mice and men! Taking a “cat nap” while waiting for his train in Providence’s Union Station in the “wee sma’ hours,” the worst happened–the manuscript was lost! The first we knew of it was when a small, frantic statement of its loss appeared in the next morning’s Providence Journal’s Lost and Found column–offering a substantial reward for its return. The manuscript was never found, but fortunately, seeming to have a sixth sense in such matters, Lovecraft had brought the original pen-and-ink copy of the manuscript to New York, and a public stenographer made quick work of it.
The advertisement in “Lost and Found” is real, and read:
MANUSCRIPT–Lost, title of story, “Under the Pyramids,” Sunday afternoon, in or about Union Station. Finder please send to H. P. Lovecraft, 259 Parkside Ave., Brooklyn, New York.
259 Parkside Ave. was the address of Sonia H. Greene, Lovecraft’s intended bride. However, Muriel Eddy was incorrect about who re-typed the story, as Lovecraft picks up the story:
Being obliged to get some typing done instantly, we finished the evening at the only public stenographer’s office in town which was then open–that at the Hotel Vendig, where for a dollar we obtained the use of a Royal machine for three hours. S.H. dictated whilst I typed–a marvellous way of speeding up copying, and one which I shall constantly use in future, since my partner expresses a willingness amounting to eagerness so far as her share of the toil is concerned. She has the absolutely unique gift of being able to read the careless scrawl of my rough manuscripts–no matter how cryptically and involved interlined!
Lovecraft gives a fuller description of the rush and difficulties that befell the combination of trying to get the manuscript typed and the marriage off without a hitch:
Monday morning all three Parkside habitants rose early and were out–Grandpa on a dual mission in which the traditional felicity of approaching matrimony was considerably alloyed by a heavy worry of wholly unconnected nature. What worry, you ask? I’ll shed light…and impart the sad news that I LOST, just before taking the N.Y. train, the entire typed manuscript of my Houdini story, whose triumphant conclusion I had so clithely announced to you! My gawd! Think of it! I had sat up all Saturday-Sunday night to get the rush typing done…andnow all the fruits thereof were gone! It remained, then, for me to get the thing retyped somehow, and mail it to Weird Tales at the earliest second possible….a grisly skeleton at the feast. Thus on my wedding more I hasted to the Reading Lamp office, where Miss Tucker was damn generous in letting me use the whole stenographick force in one mad effort to replace the lost text. No use–before it was half done the hour for more momentous steps had arriven, and I had met the bride-elect in the final license-ring rush….to say nothing of a good Italian dinner somewhere in thirty-somethingth street! […]
Being obliged to get that damned Houdini manuscript done instanter, we finished the evening at the only publick stenographer’s office in town which was then open–that at the Hotel Vendig, where for a dollar we obtain’d the use of a Royal machine for three hours. Grandma dictated whilst Grandpa typed–a marvellous way of speeding up copying, and one which I shall frequently employ in the future, since my spouse expresses a willingness amounting to eagerness as far as her share of the toil is concern’d. She has the absolutely unique gift of being able to decipher the careless scrawl of my rough manuscripts–no matter how cryptically and involvedly interlined!
In her own memoir of their marriage, Sonia noted drolly:
It was not “a public stenographer” who copied H. P.’s hand-written notes for the Houdini manuscript. It was I alone who was able to read these erased and crossed-out notes. I read them slowly to him while H.P. pounded them out on a borrowed typewriter, borrowed from the hotel in Philadelphia where we spent the first day and night copying that precious manuscript which had to meet the printer’s deadline. When the manuscript was finished we were too tired and exhausted for honey-mooning or anything else. But I wouldn’t and didn’t let Howard down. The manuscript reached the publisher in time.
Frank Belknap Long, who heard the story from Lovecraft, said “I have no reason to question the authenticity of Sonia’s account” (Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside 115). If the idea of reading off your husband’s crabby handwriting while he pecks away at a rented typewriter for several hours doesn’t exactly sound like a romantic honeymoon, Sonia declared that Lovecraft did make one particular grand gesture before they went to the church for the ceremony:
The only money he ever spent on me that he had earned was that which he received for the lost Houdini manuscript which he inadvertently left behind while waiting at the station for the train which was to take him to New York and to me the night before we were married. When I insisted that only half the amount be spent for a wedding ring, his own generosity overcame him and he insisted the future Mrs. Howard Phillips Lovecraft must have the finest wedding ring with diamonds all around it even if it took all of the proceeds of that first well-paid story.
The story that was sent off was in the first-person and starred Houdini, but otherwise was considerably different from both “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” and “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover.” The Houdini of those stories had been intelligent, honorable, and resourceful, but Lovecraft’s Houdini in the May-Jun-Jul 1924 triple-sized anniversary issue was also erudite, imaginative, and profoundly more detailed in describing both when and where he was. If the other ghosts had successfully avoided sounding like anyone in particular and carefully repeated Houdini’s stock assertions against spiritualism, Lovecraft’s Houdini sounds very much like Lovecraft. In discussing the liberties he had taken with Houdini’s anecdote, Lovecraft wrote:
BOY, that Houdini job! It strained me to the limit, & I didn’t get it off till after we got back from Philly. I went the limit in descriptive realism in the first part, then when I buckled down to the under-the-pyramid stuff I let myself loose & coughed up some of the most nameless, slithering, unmentionable HORROR that ever stalked cloven-hooved through the tenebrous & necrophagous abysses of elder night. To square it with the character of a popular showman, I tacked on the “it-was-all-a-dream” bromide–& we’ll see what Houdini thinks of it. I have an idea Henny will have to stand for it, because it came in so late that there won’t be a damn second to change it–and it’s already announced.
Henneberger—or at least Otis Adelbert Kline, who claimed to have compiled the issue while the split at Rural Publishing Co. was going on—did have to accept it, albeit with a few changes. Lovecraft’s original title of “Under the Pyramids” was changed to “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” an editorial decision that highlighted Houdini’s escapist skills, and the byline read simply “by Houdini” rather than “by Houdini and Lovecraft.” Lovecraft addressed this point in another letter:
As to literary stuff–Henneberger made a special trip to Murfreesboro, Tennesse to show my new story to Houdini, and the latter took to it marvelously–writing me a note at once, which I answered at his New York address, 278 West 113th St. […] The Houdini story may appear without my name, for Henny is so dull that he doesn’t see how a collaborated work can be written in the first person–he expected third, and indulged in several saline tears because I didn’t write it thus!
Henneberger’s reasoning does not really work; Weird Tales‘ competitor Ghost Stories ran many supposedly-true stories of the supernatural where the individual witness was nominally “paired” with a professional writer, and since the stories were told in confessional style they were almost always in the first person. However, giving Houdini the sole byline kept the story in a series with the previous ones, though few readers were likely fooled by the lack of Lovecraft’s name; the stylistic differences between the three stories are vast, and Lovecraft’s fantastic “dream sequence” utterly unlike anything most Weird Tales writers could produce.
The story also has the distinction of being the first Lovecraft story set in Africa (though “Arthur Jermyn” references the Congo, the only other story actually set in Africa is “Winged Death” (1934) by Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft). Lovecraft’s depiction of the indigenous Egyptians was fairly typical of Colonialist attitudes during the period, when Egypt was occupied by British forces, and the Egyptians are often depicted as dirty, conniving, violent, superstitious, and unscrupulous. It is very much a representation of the Oriental stereotypes and themes that would lead Farnsworth Wright to spin off Oriental Stories magazine from Weird Tales in 1930.
“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” was received positively enough, and Lovecraft was happy enough to be promptly paid. While he never publicly claimed authorship, Lovecraft was not averse to letting his friends know he had ghosted the story:
Did you see the stout, so-called “Anniversary Number” of Weird Tales with my “Hypnos” & my development of the Houdini theme? In the latter all the writing is my own, & the second or fictional part wholly of my own invention. Houdini, whom I met here last April, averred that he liked the tale very much.
While only three Houdini stories were published in Weird Tales, there is an anecdote about a fourth story that was written for the pulp magazine at about that time, but which was never published:
I remember Mr. Eddy’s painstaking revision of Houdini’s “Thoughts and Feelings of a Head Cut Off”…an experience which the master magician had undergone in his youth. Harry Houdini said in his story that somewhere in his ravels he came across an ancient superstition that if a head was severed quickly and unexpectedly from a body, the brain in the head kept on thinking for several seconds!
According to Harry, the natives of Aden-Aden were eager to test this theory, and when he visited that remote island, they ganged up on him and almost succeeded in amputating his head from his body. They must have been anxious to hear what the brain of a magician would think of, after it was separated from the body!
I am quite sure this story was never offered for sale by Harry Houdini, as it lacked the ring of veracity…perhaps it was somewhat exaggerated! When we told H.P.L. about it, he exclaimed, “Oh, what I could have done with that story, but perhaps Houdini wouldn’t have liked it if I’d changed it too much. I took a lot of liberties with his ‘Pharaoh’ story and he seemed satisfied, but this one!” And a far-away look was in his eyes…
It is not clear where “Aden-Aden” refers to, although the reference to “remote island” and “natives” suggests the South Pacific, which Houdini visited or at least passed through on his trips to and from Australia. In “Daring Exploits of Houdini” (Tales of Magic and Mystery Feb 1928), Walter B. Gibson accounts a feat of escapology that Houdini performed in the Fiji Islands, which may have partially inspired this anecdote. The idea of being overwhelmed by the “locals” is a common element in the plots of both “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” and “Under the Pyramids” as well. In all, it sounds very much like an anecdote for one of Houdini’s Weird Tales.
No manuscript has yet emerged with the story, and there is no other evidence to date when it was written. Possibly Houdini engaged Eddy to ghostwrite it shortly after Lovecraft introduced the two men in early 1924, but before the changes had been made at Weird Tales which ended Houdini’s involvement with the magazine. It is hard to see what market Houdini may otherwise have been aiming at with such a tale.
Houdini & Lovecraft (1924-1925)
The acquisition of Houdini ought to be a great selling asset, for his fame and ability in his spectacular line are vast and indisputable. I am not much of a vaudeville follower, but it happens that I saw him at the old Keith’s Theatre here nearly a quarter of a century ago it must have been at the very outset of his career, for he was not then especially well known. Since then it interested me to hear that he comes from Appleton, Wisconsin, the home town of my learned young friend Alfred Galpin, whom I mentioned earlier in this epistle. I did not know that he writes, or that he possessed such a notable library as you describe. Certainly, it will afford me unmeasured delight to meet this library and its versatile owner—a thing the more probable because, although not much given to long trips, it is very likely that I shall live in New York after the coming spring. I suppose his articles naturally would have the imperfect background you mention, because he has been mainly accustomed to expressing his personality in different ways. I can tell better after seeing the one in the March issue, perhaps Houdini furnishes an instance of the condition I mentioned before—the creator of genius who needs a re-writer to give his recorded work the form which may perfectly express its spirit.
H. P. Lovecraft to J. C. Henneberger, 2 Feb 1924, Wikisource
While Lovecraft’s relationship with original Weird Tales editor Edwin Baird was cordial, it was J. C. Henneberger who recognized the writer’s talent and sought to capitalize on it, both by offering Lovecraft the Houdini ghostwriting job and by offering an editorial position at Weird Tales—a position which Lovecraft declined, after consideration, both because it would mean relocation to Chicago and probably because of Henneberger’s shaky finances. As it was, while Henneberger’s plans for Weird Tales never quite worked out as he had hoped, one result of them was to put Lovecraft and Houdini in contact with one another.
Lovecraft and Houdini were at this time (Spring 1924) both living in New York City, although Houdini regularly traveled about on his business. According to Lovecraft, they finally met in April of that year (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill70). Nothing came of this immediately, though Houdini likely realized Lovecraft’s value as a ghostwriter, and Lovecraft recognized Houdini’s value as a client, and their paths crossed again in June of that year:
I shall try to see the cinema you mention–though I saw the original play “Outward Bound” in Nieuw-Amsterdam in June, 1924, in the company of two individuals no less distinguished than the late Houdini and the late (so far as ownership of Weird Tales is concerned) get-rich-quick Henneberger, who were then collaborating on the details of a column run (or signed) by the celebrated conjuror. I recall the performance especially well because Houdini, conversing before the rise of the curtain, aired what is said to have been a favourite parlous trick of his–apparently pulling off his own left thumb and snapping it back after it had seemed to be away from its stump for as great a distance as an inch–or perhaps two. The whole impromptu setting, and the fact that the whole thing was in the very next seat nor four feet from my eyes, made the effect highly impressive. I wasn’t prying enough to beg an explanation, but logic seems to suggest that the cardinal principle was the snapping of some dark strip of material down and back to create an apparent gap between the base and tip of thumb. But it was damn clever–an absolulely perfect illusion, so far as my aged eyes were concerned.
This was Houdini’s infamous “Thumb Racket,” and video survives of the performance. Such social outings were no doubt rare, however, as Houdini was busy and Lovecraft struggled to find a job in New York to help financially support his marriage:
On this day I received a letter from Houdini–who was playing at the Albee and stopping at the Crown–offering to assist me in finding a position on his return to N.Y. I had given Eddy a letter of introduction to him, and the two had had some very exhaustive discussions, during which the magician expressed much eagerness to be of assistance to us both. I enclose the letter–which I answered, and to which I have just received a reply, asking me to telephone Houdini next Sunday or Monday, when he will be here before leaving for a vaudeville tour of the Pacific Coast. […] Did I say that Houdini has written, promising to find something for me? Probably I did–but I might as well transcribe in toto the note I received yesterday. (Monday)
It was a magnanimous gesture, but it came to naught:
Tuesday the 14th I read my principal book on colonial houses, & in the afternoon went to interview the man to whom Houdini had given me a letter of introduction–Brett Page, head of a newspaper syndicate service whose office is at the corner of Broadway & 58th St. […] He advised me to ask Houdini for an introduction to a book publisher–which I shall do when my nerves permit me to indite a coherent epistle.
While Lovecraft does not appear to have done any work for Houdini in 1924, it appears Houdini found work for his friend C. M. Eddy, Jr.; what exactly Eddy did for Houdini is unclear, but it apparently involved both ghostwriting and investigative work. Lovecraft and Houdini apparently kept in touch, either by mail or by occasional phone call, and possibly through mutual contacts like Eddy. In January 1925, Houdini played at the Hippodrome in New York, and invited the Lovecrafts:
In the morning I received telephone calls, & telephoned Houdini about some Hippodrome seats which he had offered me for his current performance–obtaining fine places for Thursday night. […] In the evening I joined [Sonia H. Lovecraft] at the Hippodrome–a pleasantly immense house–& saw Houdini go through the same tricks he shewed in Providence about 1898.
It’s not clear if the Lovecrafts arrived on time, because Lovecraft later stated he had never seen an entire Houdini show (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.501). While no account of the show survives in Howard’s letters, Frank Belknap Long recalled:
At Houdini’s invitation Howard arrived at the long-vanished New York Hippodrome when he was giving one of his peak performances. An hour or so before the curtain went up, the master magician slipped quietly into the chair adjacent to the one HPL occupied, introduced himself, and began to converse.
And as he talked, Howard told me the following day, he had the strange illusion,s everal times repeated, that Houdini was not there at all. Only his voice seemed to come from some region immeasurably remote, and Howard never once glanced sideways to dispel the illusion; to hae done so would have gone contrary to the stern attitude he always took about succumbing to any kind of silly credulity that could be dismissed as meaningless if one took the trouble to analyze it. […] Before the time arrived when Houdini’s presence was required backstage, they had discussed a number of things, including the splendid job Howard had done in “revising and expanding” Imprisoned with the Pharaohs (not once did Houdini mention ghost-writing), what an exceptionally far-sighted businessman Henneberger was, the serious disagreements he had had with Baird, and why it was just possible that a new editor might soon be at the helm of Weird Tales. […]
The performance which Howard witnessed that night greatly impressed him. Houdini had appeared on the stage manacled from head to toe, descended into a towering water tank, and emerged five minutes later dripping wet, holding one padlock aloft in his hand as a symbol of triumph.
Throughout 1925 Lovecraft and his wife Sonia would face a number of financial and personal difficulties. These experiences left their mark, and Lovecraft would write stories like “The Horror at Red Hook” and “He” that spoke to his disenchantment with New York. Yet he was also keen on New York’s history and the opportunities for fellowship it allowed with his literary-minded friends…including C. M. Eddy, when he came to town:
I was awakened the next day by the arrival of a most unexpected guest–who under divine Pegāna but C. M. Eddy, Jr., of The City!! He was here on literary business, interviewing magazine editors & stopping with Houdini up in West 113th St. […] Eddy had an engagement at Houdini’s house at midnight, so we had to hustle a bit; but we managed to include the salient points by brisk walking, bidding Loveman farewell at 11:30, after which I piloted Eddy to Houdini’s home via the Bronx subway. […] A telephone call now came from [Sonia H. Lovecraft], asking me to meet her for dinner at the Milan restaurant in West 42nd St., & afer an affirmative reply I got Eddy on the wire & arranged for a general party there–[Lillian D. Clark], Eddy, [Samuel] Loveman, Kirk, [Rheinhart] Kleiner, S H, & H P L. Kirk went down to get S L & R K, & LDC & I rested & proceeded to the restaurant–a very attractive Italian place which Eddy later learnt is a chosen haunt of Houdini & his wife. We all met successfully, & the dinner was delightful. Eddy then went to the Hippodrome to meet Houdini, Kirk, Loveman, & Kleiner went up to Belknap’s, & SH, L D C, & I returned to 169 Clinton, where S H made lemon tea with my Sterno in Kirk’s room.
After this, life tugged Lovecraft and Houdini in different directions, and they do not appear to have kept in contact. Lovecraft showed his own escapology skills by extricating himself from the New York he had come to loathe, and in early 1926 returned to Providence.
Astrology & The Cancer of Superstition (1926)
From 4-9 October 1926, Houdini and his wife Bess performed their show at the Providence Opera House. In the audience were Lovecraft and the Eddys:
When Harry Houdini came to Providence for the last time, we made up a theater party and attended the performance. It was a big production, and his wife Beatrice assisted him in his magic tricks and illusions. A niece, Julia, also was an assistant on the stage.
After the show, Houdini suggested that we go to lunch at a Waldorf restaurant. It was very late, and at the midnight hour we sat at a long table together, with Beatrice Houdini’s pet parrot perched demurely on her shoulder. Lovecraft got quite a kick out of watching the parrot…named Lori…sip tea from a spoon and nibble daintly at toast held by his polite mistress!
I remember that H.P. L. ordered half a cantalope filled with vanilla ice cream, and a cup of coffee. He was in great spirits and bubbled over with good humor, talking a blue streak about everything under the sun. Harry Houdini gazed at him admiringly. I am sure he liked H.P.L. as much as almost everybody did who had a chance to study and know him.
The dinner had two results: Bess Houdini got food poisoning (The Secret Life of Houdini 502), and Houdini asked Lovecraft to do some more ghostwriting for him; nonfiction, this time:
The present season I’m as busy as hell with some special revisory work which I’ve been doing for the well-known conjuror Houdini. I’ve done stuff for him before; but last week he performed in Providence, & took the opportunity to have me go over a lot of stuff which required constant consultation. It was the raw material for a campaign against astrology; & being somewhat in my line, (I had a campaign of my own on this subject in 1914) I rather enjoyed the digging up of data–though it was beastly laborious, & forced me to work continuously till night before last with very little sleep. If it doesn’t knock out all the star-gazing charlatans in the country, I shall feel deeply disappointed! My next job for the sprightly wizard is an attack on witchcraft–which makes me lament with redoubled intensity the lack of a peek at that [Arthur Edward] Waite book in the Old Corner [Bookshop]!
It was a rush job, as Lovecraft had only five days to finish the article and deliver it to Houdini before the illusionist left Providence…but Houdini paid in cash.
This guy was in town early in the month, & rushed me to hell preparing an anti-astrological article to be finished before his departure–a matter of five days; for which I received the not wholly despicable remuneration of seventy-five (yes, LXXV!!!) bucks in tangible (tho’ not very crisp) greenbacks–three twenties, one ten, a two, & three ones. He says he has a devilish lot more for me to do; but just now I’m holding him up for a certainty of decent pay, so in the end he may back out. (He wants me to come to Detroit a week–where he is playing–& talk things over, but I’m sidestrepping that the best I can.–Later still–I see in the paper that the poor guy has just had a collapse.) At present I’m loaded down with a lot of books he’s lent me for research, & a weighty list of subjects–beginning with witchcraft–which e wants tackled. Once I receive orders to go ahead on the witchcraft article, it’s goodbye to the sunny world outside my scholastic cell–for it sure does take digging to satisfy that bozo! Meanwhile I am breathing while breathing is good, & am also helping honest C. M. Eddy Jr. a bit on some work he’s doing for our magical taskmaster. The necromantic neo-Bush is inclined to be dissatisfied with Eddy’s unaided performances, yet poor E. can’t afford to lose so important a client.
Other letters from around the same time repeat that Houdini had invited Lovecraft to Detroit and that Houdini had intimated at more ghostwriting work to be done, but no new details are available aside from the fact that Lovecraft didn’t wish to go to Detroit if he could help it. After leaving Providence, Houdini continued his tour, first to Montreal where he suffered an accident and sent Eddy a brief letter, and then on to Detroit. On 24 October 1926 Harry Houdini collapsed after a final performance at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit, Michigan. Lovecraft followed the news in the papers.
Speaking of work–I see that Houdini still survives, though with a very slim chance of recovery. It would really be a pity for him to be cut off at this time; for he is an enormously good-hearted chap, & has that keen enjoyment of life which only the naive & crude can retain. Just before his seizure he was trying to get me to confer with him in Detroit–though I was declining except in case of urgent necessity. It would e a good arrangement if I could see to all his writings on a regular basis, though I’d hate to be on the jump from town to town–or in N.Y. much–as he might require. He was recently urging me to arrange for a month of intensive revision of scattered data in N.Y. next summer.
The book which Lovecraft was helping C. M. Eddy on for Houdini was a general attack on supernatural beliefs, a thematic sequel of sorts to Houdini’s 1924 A Magician Among the Spirits; it was to be titled The Cancer of Superstition. A draft outline of this book survives at the John Hay Library in the Lovecraft collection, and can be viewed at the Brown Digital Repository; a draft of the first three chapters was completed and is in private hands, having sold at auction in 2016.
The question was, what Lovecraft and Eddy would do with the partially written manuscript now that their client was dead.
I haven’t yet attempted the task of convincing the Houdini heirs that the world needs his posthumous collected works in the best Georgian manner, but honest Eddy has gone the length of trying to collect the jack on an article for which the departed did not give his final & conclusive authorization, & which I consequently advised him not to write at the tiem! Well–I hope he gets it, for otherwise I shan’t feel justified in collecting the price–in typing labour–of my aid on the text in question.
The subject must have eventually been tactfully broached, because Bess Houdini sent a response to Lovecraft declining the continuation of the project. So the last bit of ghostwork remained unfinished, and largely unseen.
Memories & Recollections
Lovecraft remembered Houdini fondly in later years, and while he never publicly revealed his small amount of ghosting, in private correspondence he expressed great admiration for the man.
At that time I was doing a tremendous amount for the conjuror Houdini, with a prospect of handing an enormous amount in future–a whole series of exposes of the different branches of occultism. Then some bally idiot had to give him a ventral punch which sent him back to Abraham’s bosom in a week, & all demand for anti-occult revision naturally evaporated. It was really quite too bad, for the work was genuinely interesting & involved no blah or fakery. Houdini was after real facts & nothing else, & had to have his work absolutely proof against all rebuttals & flaw-pickings from his opponents. . . . .
Poor old Houdini–who actually had a tremendous amount of penetrative skill and workable erudition in this field despite his general lack of culture, and who was incredibly honest in his researches despite the fat that publicity was his primary goal–had a long talk on this subject with Eddy and me less than a month before his death, and no one could fail to appreciate from his descriptions the way all great Hindoo fakir feats evaporate when one buckles down to get first-hand or photographic data. At the coast of much delving and evidential sifting Houdini arrived at the very reasonable conclusion that India’s fakirs obtain their fame through a very shrewd mixture of publicity with a moderate amount of sleight-of-hand skill.
A case of extremely high intelligence devoted to relatively trivial ends is afforded by the magician Houdini, for whom I did some revisory work in the two years preceding his death. He was content to let his mind and taste function intensively in a very narrow and trivial range; becoming a peerless showman yt remaining surprisingly crude and undeveloped in other fields. He was blind and unresponsive to enormous areas of life–yet when his mind attacked any given problem it was easy to observe its lightning power. There was a case of waste for you–a first-rate intellect which might have given its possessor a rich glow of comprehension and achievement in science, scholarship, or philosophy. . . . yet wasted on a narrow, trifling field which gave no rewards beyond those mediocre, superficial ones of professional satisfaction and awdry popular distinction which many a crude bullfighter or brainless cinema hero achieves.
This last recollection was written as part of a long-running argument between Lovecraft and Howard on the superiority of the mental versus the physical, in which each took the position of opposing the preferences of the other. Consequently, Howard would reply:
Your mention of Houdini interests me. You blame him for being a showman when he might have been, in your opinion, a scholar, scientist, or philosopher. How do you know he would have derived more pleasure out of being a scholar, scientist or philosopher than he did as a showman? Now, don’t get to thinking again that I’m questioning the superiority of these things over showmanship. I’m simply questioning the assumption that any man would get more satisfaction out of being a scholar, scientist or philosopher, than he would out of being something else. As a born showman, Houdini was undoubtedly happier as the supreme artist of his profession, than he would have been in anything else. You don’t take differences of temperament into consideration.
Lovecraft, challenged on his interpretation for perhaps the first time, responded:
Regarding the late Houdini–I didn’t say I blamed him, but I said I was sorry that so phenomenal a mnd was sidetracked from more richly rewarding fields to a type of activity essentially meagre and sterile. As to the values concerned–the reference on VII, 2 is applicable. The quest of realtive pleasure–whether Houdini would hav got more from life if dedicated to tasks worthy of his brain–brings up the reference on XVIII, 1 nd 2, which in turn refers back to a former letter of mine and introduces the idea of measuring actual richness of experience by the amount of cerebral metabolism concerned. Of course, once Houdini had fallen through chance circumstance into the cheap preference he had, it might have been impossible for him to enjoy a transfer of activity to a profounder and intrinsically rewarding field.
As usual for the argument, neither Lovecraft nor Howard was willing to give much ground, and the Houdini thread was quietly dropped. Many more smaller mentions occur throughout Lovecraft’s letters for the remainder of his life; the most elaborate anecdote being on the infamous “Hindu rope trick”:
In 1924-6 I did a good deal of revisory work for the late magician & exposer of spiritual fakes–Houdini–& he had tremendously interesting & important things to say about the origin of certain typical myths from absolute fiction. Take the well-known tales of Hindoo fakirs–the man who throws a rope up straight into the sky & has a boy climb up & out of sight on it, or the one who puts a boy in a wicker basket, has spectators run swords through it, & then has the boy clamber out unhurt. Up to revent times these things were attributed to the collective hypnotism of the crowd by the magician. There were frequent stories of people who smuggled cameras to such demonstrations, obtained pictures of the magician in which none of the apparent phenomena shewed–even though the visual effect on the living audience was perfect. Well–Houdini went into this matter pretty exhaustively, & found that no first-hand report of such a performance could ever be secured. Dozens of people “had it straight from an eye-witness”–but no real eye-witness could ver, during a long course of years, be located. The inference is obvious. These extreme feats of the fakirs have never been performed. They constitute a well-defined type of folk myth–something everybody believes has occurred, but which has in truth never occurred. Even to this day one can find serious statements of the old “mass hypnotism” theory–but the investigations of Houdini tell their own story. Incidentally–the growth of the camera myth, as above outlined, is an even more vivid specimen of synthetic folklore without base–doubly vivid because of its conspicuous recency.
Another version of this anecdote, without mentioning Houdini, is in a letter to August Derleth (Essential Solitude1.426-427). A decade minus a week after Houdini’s death, Lovecraft recalled his acquaintance for one of the last times:
We certainly never learn from reports just what really did occur, & yet a certain amount of mechanical “magic” exists without question in these demonstrations. Of the nature of that magic, the investigations & the duplicating feats of the late Houdini give at least an opening clue. I saw him do on the stage of the Providence Opera House only a fortnight before his death things impossible according to the known laws of the physical world. That is–things apparently impossible.
In his memoir of Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long recalled asking the writer about Houdini after seeing him on stage at the Hippodrome in 1924:
“He’s a strange little man,” Howard said […] “He talks incessantly and never seems to know when to stop. He seems just a little–well, the sort of person who would get on my nerves if I had to meet him often. But my hat is off to him as a performer. It took genius to do what he did last night. Eight splendid feats, each one more incredible than its predecessor. The illusion he created was unbelievable. He has a magnificent stage presence–I’ve never seen anything that could remotely compare with it. He was absolutely confident, and dominated the audience from first to last, without dispelling the way they must have felt–tha he was taking unjustified risks with his life. That was a very difficult thing to do. he had to create two contradictory impressions–that he could succeed in freeing himself beyond any possibility of doubt, and that his confidence was unshaken in that respect. But he also had to make the audience feel that total failure could not be ruled out, and that he was heroically aware of the danger.”
“Feats of that nature are always spectacularly sensational and are tailored to appeal to what is most credulous in the popular mind. I was almost certain that the performance would have a certain aspect of cheapness, even of clownishness about it. It would have possessed such an aspect, I’m sure, if anyone but Houdini had been on that stage. But there was nothing meretricious about it–no, I mustn’y say what I would have been tempted to say for a moment last night. All such performances are meretricious because they are faked–absurd and exaggerated in every respect. But he made it all seem genuine while you were looking at it, and my hat is off to him, as I’ve said.”
Lovecraft himself would pass away on 15 March 1937. With him died Houdini’s last living link with Weird Tales; for while Henneberger, Wright, Baird, and Kline survived both men, it was because of Lovecraft and “Under the Pyramids” that Houdini’s connection with the Unique Magazine is remembered today. “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt,” “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover,” and “Ask Houdini” are barely footnotes in the life of the Great Magician, but “Under the Pyramids” remains a favorite story of many Lovecraft fans even today…and through that story, and Lovecraft’s letters, Houdini’s connection to Weird Tales will be remembered for a long time to come.
In 1939, “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” was reprinted in Weird Tales Jun-Jul 1939 issue; a brief notice finally revealed to the pulp public what had been an open secret among his friends, that Lovecraft had a hand in the story.
From that link, Houdini and Lovecraft’s literary legacies forged a new chain of associations.
In 2012, Lance Thingmaker published a small edition, exquisitely printed hardback edition of “Under the Pyramids.” Each copy came in a small locked mailbag; the key to the lock was in a tiny envelope inside the book. It was as perfect an homage to Houdini as you could get: to read the book, you had to first pull a Houdini.
Few, if any, other efforts to acknowledge, honor, or utilize the Lovecraft-Houdini connection are quite so clever or well-done.
Because of their personal acquaintance, the posthumous literary afterlives of Lovecraft and Houdini have been partially intertwined. They have appeared together in a number of novels and graphic novels, including Richard A. Lupoff’s Lovecraft’s Book(1985), Thomas Wheeler’s The Arcanum (2004), Gordon Rennie and Frazer Irving’s Necronauts(2003), Jon Vinson and Marco Roblin’s Edge of the Unknown(2010) among others.
These stories tend more to pulpish action and exaggeration than any effort to examine or utilize the real shared history of Lovecraft and Houdini to any substantial degree, and there is a certain irony in that while Lovecraft and Houdini got along well in part because of their shared skepticism of the supernatural, got along well, in this literary afterlife both men are often faced with genuine occultism and a frightfully real gaggle of Mythos entities.
That is the distortion of death, where both men often become caricatures of the personalities they projected to their audience. This is the ultimate unintended consequence of Henneberger’s effort to draw a celebrity in to save his failing pulp magazine, the ripples of effect from that primal cause. No one in 1923 could have foreseen that a ghostwritten story would result in books and comics being made starring the creators almost a century later…yet, here were are.
Suggested Further Reading
The full history of Weird Tales has never been written, and probably will never be. The men and women who founded the magazine and worked in the offices and supplied the words, art, and editing for the magazine from 1923-1954 are all dead, the business files destroyed or dispersed, and while the contents of that magazine have been preserved, we are left with a very incomplete picture of what happened “behind the scenes.”
For much of the details on the business side of Weird Tales, I refer readers to Robert Weinberg’s The Weird Tales Story: Expanded and Enhanced (2021) and John Locke’s The Thing’s Incredible! The Secret Origins of Weird Tales(2018). Neither is perfect; Weinberg had a tendency to not cite his sources, or to cite sources now unavailable; and while Locke is an able researcher I don’t agree with all of his interpretations of the available evidence—but that is the nature of digging into Weird Tales lore: disagreements over the contents of old letters and memoirs published in older sources like The Weird Tales Collector and WT50: A Tribute To Weird Tales.
Houdini biographies do not tend to discuss his involvement with Weird Tales, or weird talers H. P. Lovecraft and C. M. Eddy, Jr., in great detail. However, for the general facts of Houdini’s life I’ve relied on Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss (1996) by Kenneth Silverman and The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero(2006) by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. I would be remiss not to mention the Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence blog by Joe Notaro, which has covered some of this material (from the Houdini perspective) before, and whose articles are linked above. Leigh Blackmore has written extensively on the Houdini-Lovecraft connection in his contributions to the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association.
Thanks and appreciation to Will Murray, Dave Goudsward, and Leigh Blackmore for all their help.
In the new issue I found more good stuff than usual. “The Canal” is truly fine—real terror woven into the inmost atmosphere—& “Bells of Oceana” comes close to packing a genuine kick.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 4 Nov 1927, Essential Solitude 1.113
“The Canal” by Everil Worell was first published in Weird Tales December 1927, which is where Lovecraft read it. This was Worrell’s fourth published story in Weird Tales; she would publish 19 in the magazine between 1926 and 1954, when the pulp ceased publication, being one of the prolific women weird talers who made their mark on the magazine. Lovecraft wasn’t keen on every story Worrell wrote…but “The Canal” was special, and Lovecraft repeatedly listed it among the best stories ever published by Weird Tales:
Looking over the whole contents of W.T., one’s final impression is that of a devastating desert of crudity & mediocrity, relieved by a very few oases. The high spots that impress me are Suter’s “Beyond the Door”, Humphrey’s “The Floor Above”, Arnold’s “The Night Wire”, Worrell’s “The Canal”, Burks’ “Bells of Oceana”, & Leahy’s “In Amundsen’s Tent”. Those things have the atmosphere & suggestion which spell power.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 18 Feb 1930, Essential Solitude 1.247
As for my favourite W.T. authors—it would be hard to make a list. The very best tales have been written by persons not at all well known. In my opinion, the relaly high spots run something like this:
Beyond the Door___________Paul Suter
The Floor Above___________M. Humphreys
The Night Wire____________H. F. Arnold
In Amundsen’s Tent_________John Martin Leahy
The Canal________________Everil Worrill [sic]
Bells of Oceana____________Arthur J. Burks
Passing of a God___________Henry S. Whitehead
[…] W0rrill [sic] is good in the main, but has produced some fearsome trash.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 19 Jun 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 18-19
Yes—”The Canal” is great stuff. I once cited it as one of the 6 best stories WT ever printed—the other 5 being “Beyond the Door”, “The Floor Above”, “In Amundsen’s Tent”, “The Night Wire”, & “Bells of Oceana.” The author is a woman, & has written other stuff—some very poor (“Light Echoes”) & some distinctly good (“the Bird of Space”).
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 22 Dec 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 247-248
Lovecraft wasn’t originally aware of Worrell’s gender, and refers to her as “he” in his correspondence until 1930, when he received a bit of news:
[Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales] adds that Everil Worrell (who turns out to be a woman) is about to become associate editor of W.T. & Oriental Tales.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 242 (cf. ES 1.281)
Oriental Stories was a new magazine produced by Popular Fiction Publishing the publishers of Weird Tales and edited by Farnsworth Wright, with the first issue appearing in Oct-Nov 1930; Wright also wanted to bring out a third magazine titled Strange Stories, but a dispute regarding the name hung up production and SS was eventually abandoned. Lovecraft was positive about the idea of Worrell as associate editor, based solely on her fiction—and that mainly “The Canal”:
I hope that the co-editorship of Everil Worrell, whose “Canal” shewed a genuine comprehension of the principles of weirdness, will cause some slight improvement in the magazine’s principles of selection.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 246
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Oriental Stories by itself was a strain on Popular Fiction Publishing’s resources, with Weird Tales having to go bimonthly for three issues in 1931 to help keep Oriental Stories afloat. Whether the financial strain couldn’t support an associate editor, or Wright didn’t need an associate editor because the magazines went bimonthly, or Worrell chose not to accept the position—she did not join the Popular Fiction Publishing editorial staff.
What was it about “The Canal” that attracted Lovecraft’s undying appreciation? The protagonist is coincidentally very Lovecraftian, with a love of nocturnal walks and strange places and an appreciation of odd beauty. So too, some of the philosophical themes, such as the loss of freedom that an office job would require, might have struck a chord. The premise of the plot—quite literally love at first sight—is not at all the usual kind of story that Lovecraft enjoyed. But as with “Shambleau” (1933) by C. L. Moore and “Black God’s Kiss” (1934) by C. L. Moore, Lovecraft could appreciate sudden and sensual attachments if the story had a truly weird element, carefully told with the appropriate atmosphere. Werewolves and vampires were rather conventional horrors that held little interest for Lovecraft, but they had their place in the weird oeuvre, and HPL never said a word against Dracula’s brides in the castle.
Lovecraft’s appreciation for “The Canal” led to a brief but illuminating discussion with another master of the weird tale:
By the way, I have just been re-reading “The Canal”, which you mention. It certainly creates a memorable atmosphere; but the one flaw, to me, is the wholesale dynamiting, which seems to introduce a jarring note among the shadowy supernatural horrors. However, this is just my own reaction. I would have had the narrator simply kill himself, overwhelmed by despair at the irremediable scourge he had loosed, and leave the horror to spread unchecked. However, I shouldn’t be captious: it is the only good vampire story I have ever seen, apart from Gautier’s “Clarimonde” and my own “Rendezvous in Averoigne.” […] It seems to me also that Everil Worrel’s co-editorship should help to counter-balance some of Wright’s dunder-headed decisions; and I shall re-submit Satampra and perhaps also “The Door to Saturn” at some future date.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 24-30 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 254
“The Canal certainly has atmosphere. The final dynamiting—like my dynamiting of the house on Tempest Mountain in “The Lurking Fear”—is probably less subtly handled than it ought to be, yet is in a certain sense necessary as a means of explaining why the whole world hasn’t “gone vampire”. Whenever a fantastic tale introduces a horror which, if unchecked, would shortly produce strikingly visible results throughout the earth, it is necessary to explain why those results have not occurred—necessary, in short, to check the full action of the thing—unless the tale is laid in the future. There is really no way of escaping this dilemma. We must either explain the present survival of the existing order, or choose a remotely future period at which the existing order is assumed to be destroyed. The only adumbration of a middle course open to us is to have the original horror so subtle as to produce only imperceptible effects for a very long period, or to have a partial checking in which the action of the horror is vastly minimised or delayed. In “Dagon” I shewed a horror that may appear, but that has not yet made any effort to do so. In “Cthulhu” I had a coming horror checked by the same convulsion of Nature which produced it. [earthquake-sinking of R’lyeh] In “The Colour Out of Space” I had a partial checking. Just enough of the Outside influence remains in the well to provide a slow, creeping blight. And in “Dunwich” I had full artificial destruction, as in “The Canal”. When one does have full artificial destruction, the important thing is not to make the process too bald, crude, or incongruous with the atmosphere or action of the narrative as a whole. I agree that very few good vampire tales exist.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 7 Nov 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 261-262
This is a rare case where Lovecraft gives us insight on the craft behind writing his stories, in part because the nature of the ending of “The Canal” caused him to reflect on how he ended his own stories. There is an interesting point of comparison there: when August Derleth reprinted “The Canal” in The Sleeping and the Dead (1947), the story was revised, cutting about 2,000 words and radically changing the ending; the abridged version can be read on Wikisource. The abridged ending is more melancholy and less climactic than the first; the intention of suicide remains, but there is no dynamite, no colony of bat-creatures; it is, in fact, a bit closer to Clark Ashton Smith’s suggested ending.
Lovecraft’s appreciation of “The Canal” did not lessen with the years, and his letters in 1935 give evidence of that when Worrell’s story was reprinted in the January 1935 Weird Tales. His two longest comments to younger Weird Tales fans are succinct:
In the previous issue, the “Canal” reprint was the real feature. Yes—Everill Worrell was said by Wright to belong to the feminine gender. He once considered hiring her as associate editor, but finally decided not to. Viewed collectively, her work was very uneven—descended from the high level of “The Canal” to the unutterable namby-pamby of “Light-Echoes”…rather a Blackwoodian condition. I have seen nothing new of hers in years, & have no idea whether she is dead or alive. But “The Canal” is a landmark in WT history.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11? May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 259
“The Canal” is one of the most powerful tales W.T. ever printed—but I didn’t like “Light Echoes”, which to me suggested the namby-pamby. “The Bird of Space” wasn’t bad. I understand from Wright that Everil Worrell is a woman. He once thought of hiring her as assistant editor, but later decided not to. I don’t know her address, but fancy WT would gladly forward a letter address to her in its care. She ought to be glad to furnish an autograph to one who appreciates her work.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 31 May 1935, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 437
Everil Worrell was not dead, though Lovecraft could be forbidden for thinking so; she published no stories in Weird Tales under her own name after 1931 until 1939, two years after Lovecraft’s own death. Though they never met or corresponded, she was one of Lovecraft’s esteemed peers at Weird Tales.
“The Canal” would go on to be reprinted many times, sometimes in abridged form. Leonard Nimoy in his directing debut provided an adaptation of the story for The Night Gallery titled “Death on a Barge.” The original published text of the story can be read for free online.
Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, wildly popular through the cinema a few years ago, treats of a legendary artificial giant animated by a mediaeval rabbin of Prague according to a certain cryptic formula.The Dybbuk, translated and produce in America in 1925, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition. —H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927 version), Collected Essays2.100
Gustav Meyrink was the pseudonym of Gustav Meyer, an Austrian who had lived in Prague for twenty years as a banker. In the 1890s Meyrink developed an interest in the occult, and became a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (and also, briefly, the Theosophical Society). In 1902 he was charged with fraud, which ended his banking career; Meyrink turned his focus to writing and translation, and became especially known for his German-language stories of the supernatural. While not Jewish himself, Meyrink’s close familiarity with Prague, including the Jewish quarter and the occult provided him the ingredients for his greatest novel.
Der Golem was serialized in the German magazine Die Weißen Blätter from December 1913 to August 1914; it was published as a standalone novel in 1915, to immense popularity. The book was eventually translated into English by Madge Pemberton, and The Golemwas published in 1928. Of course, H. P. Lovecraft’s first version of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was published in 1927…so how did he write about Meyrink’s novel?
He watched the film.
The one weird film I did see was “The Golem”, based on a mediaeval ghetto legend of an artificial giant. In this production the settings were semi-futuristic, some of the ancient gabled houses of Prague’s narrow streets being made to look like sinister old men with peaked hats. —H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 16 Dec 1926, Essential Solitude 1.56
You left out the “Golem” illustration mentioned, but I fancy you may send it later. I wish I could get hold of a copy of the book. I saw a cinema of it in 1923, but never had access to the Meyrink text–although I mentioned it in my article. —H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, c. 6 Dec 1933, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 92
Der Golem (“The Golem”) was a silent film directed by and starring Paul Wegener with German intertitles released in 1915. The film is now believed to be lost, aside from some fragments. This film was followed by two more: Der Golem und die Tänzerin (“The Golem and the Dancing Girl”) in 1917, and Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (“The Golem: How He Came Into The World”) in 1920, both of which were also directed by and starring Paul Wegener as the golem. So it isn’t clear which film Lovecraft actually saw. The 1920 film survives and is in the public domain.
Lovecraft claimed in most of his letters to have caught a showing of it in 1921, and like many an English student of the VHS era who needed to write a book report, he assumed somewhat erroneously that it was faithful to the plot of the book. However, despite being nominally based on Meyrink’s novel, the book and films share little in common save the Prague setting and the Golem legend—or at least, an interpretation of the original Jewish lore as filtered through several non-Jews. Meyrink’s novel recounts his version of the golem story in brief:
“The original story harks back, so they say, to the sixteenth century. Using long-lost formals from the Kabbala, a rabbi is said to have made an artificial man–the so-called Golem–to help rint the bells in the Synagogue and for all kinds of other menial work.
“But he hadn’t made a full man, and it was animated by a sort of vegetable half-life. What life it had, too, so the story runs, was only derived from a magic charm placed behind its teeth each day, that drew down to itself what was known as the ‘free sidereal strength of the universe.’
“One evening, before evening prayers, the rabbi forgot to take the charm out of the Golem’s mouth, and it fell into a frenzy. It raged through the dark streets, smashing everything in its path, until the rabbi caught up with it, removed the charm, and destroyed it. Then the Golem collapsed, lifeless. All that was left of it was a small clay image, which you can still see in the Old Synagogue.” —Gustav Meyrink, The Golem (1985 ed.) 26
The German trilogy of films adapt a similar version of the golem story, in different times and contexts. The 1915 film has an antiques dealer discover the Golem of Prague and revives it to serve him; as in the original legend the Golem eventually goes on a rampage. The 1917 film is a comedy where a man makes himself up as the golem to win love. The 1920 film is essentially a retelling of the Golem of Prague legend, set in the medieval period. None of these make any effort to follow the original Jewish story very closely. Lovecraft, ignorant of Jewish lore as he was, probably had no idea how the film differed from the original Jewish story.
In Meyrink’s novel the Golem never plays an active role—it is a shadowy figure in a novel that is focused on the life of the mentally unstable Athanasius Pernath, as experienced by a nameless narrator; so that the story has something of an avant garde, experimental feel, with some chapters possibly being memories, delusions, or dreams and it is never quite clear what is the reality.
Lovecraft finally got a chance to read The Golem in 1935, when his young friend Robert H. Barlow loaned him a copy of the 1928 English translation. Having finally read it, Lovecraft’s acclaim was immediate:
Lately read Gustav Meyrink’s “The Golem”, lent me by young Barlow. The most magnificent weird thing I’ve struck in aeons! The cinema of the same title which I saw in 1921 was a mere substitute using the empty name—with nothing of the novel in it. What a study in subtle fear, brooding hints of elder magic, & vague driftings to & fro across the borderline betwixt dream & waking! There are no overt monsters or miracles—just symbols & suggestions. As a study in lurking, insidious regional horror it has scarcely a peer—doing for the ancient crumbling Prague ghetto what I have vainly tried to do for certain festering New England backwaters in some of my own laboured efforts. I had never read the novel before, but mentioned it in my article as a result of having seen the cinema. Now I perceive that I ought to have given it an even higher rating than I did. —H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 11 Apr 1935, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 266-267
But—I’ve read “The Golem!” Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!!! That’s what I call a story! Nothing like the cinema—the latter was just a shocker capitalising the title—though it did have splendid architectural effects. How splendidly subtle the novel is—no overt monsters, but vague suggestions of inconceivable presences & influences! It captures the nebulous, brooding horror of the immemorial Prague ghetto as I have feebly sought to capture that of certain ancient & retrogressive backwaters of New England. —H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 20 Apr 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 251
Lovecraft was so enthusiastic about the novel that he encouraged several of his correspondents to write to Barlow to have the loan of the book; so that over the next few months it was duly sent from Lovecraft to C. L. Moore, to Margaret Sylvester, Duane W. Rimel, Emil Petaja, F. Lee Baldwin, and Richard F. Searight, and offered it to Clark Ashton Smith as well. A few of their thoughts on the novel survive:
You were right about “The Golem”. Reading it in broad day was no insurance against the subtle assaults upon reality. “No actual monsters jump out of its pages”, but even tho I read it on a sunny Sunday afternoon, in a deckchair in the sunshine, it left me cold and chilly inside, and a bit glassy-eyed. I remember so vividly having wakened somewhere in grey night and seeing dusty moonlight falling thru bars on just such a littered floor as P. awakened to see in the Golem’s room. I can’t have, of course, but the book is so vivid I do remember it clearly. It was ugly. I haven’t quite finished, but will forward it to Miss Sylvester soon, as Barlow has requested. —C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 7 May 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore 35-36
Thanks for Ar-Ech-Bei’s offer of The Golem. However, I read the book several years ago, when it was loaned to me, by a young friend in the Bay region. I agree with you that it is a most consummate and eerily haunting study in strange atmosphere; probably one of the best things of the kind ever written. —Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Jun 1935, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 608
The others in the lending-list no doubt made their own appreciative comments. As with Lovecraft’s discovery of William Hope Hodgson around the same time, the reading of Meyrink’s novel prompted Lovecraft to read more of his work…but the Old Gent was stymied by the general lack of English translations.
Glad “The Golem” reached you at last. I was sure you’d appreciate it—for it is really a phenomenal triumph in its way. Few books indeed are capable of summoning up such a poignant & convincing pageant of mystical atmospheric impressions—& the absence of conventional “conflict” is all in its favour. I wish I owned it—but am told it is hard to get despite the relatively recent date (1928) of this translation. The original German novel, I believe, dates from the 1890’s. I wish I knew something of Meyrink, but I have found almost nothing about him. The only thing of his besides “The Golem” that I’ve read are som rather mediocre short stories—one of which appeared in W. T. I believe he is still living—but doubt if he has written or ever will write anything to compare with this early tour de force. —H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 19 Nov 1936, Letters to Price & Searight 431
Although Lovecraft didn’t know it, Meyrink had died in 1932. In his letters, Lovecraft says he had read “a story in the ‘Lock & Key Library'” (ES2.691), which would be “The Man on the Bottle” (Lock & Key Library vol. 3, 1909), which Lovecraft later described as “a rather clever but essentially routine conte cruel” (OFF 259); “I recall “Bal Macabre” in Strange Tales—very effective, with genuine atmospheric tension” (OFF 259), “Bal Macabre” was published in Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror (Oct 1932); and finally “The Violet Death” ran in Weird Tales (Jul 1935)…and with that, Lovecraft had read basically all of Meyrink’s work that had been published in English during his lifetime.
It is easy to see why Lovecraft was so enamored of The Golem; in its style and elements it is almost a Lovecraftian novel, with is tenuous sanity, hinting horrors, the strange mystical book Ibbur, and other elements. While it would be interesting to ruminate on the influence The Golem had one Lovecraft’s own fiction—to draw parallels, perhaps, between the original Jewish legend of the artificial servitor run amok and the shoggoths of At the Mountaints of Madness—but by the time Lovecraft had read the novel he had relatively few works of original fiction left to write, and those works show little influence of the book or Meyrink’s style. Still, this novel if nothing else would have introduced Lovecraft to tarot cards,which are a recurring occult element.
There was, in fact, only one thing left to do: revise “Supernatural Horror in Literature” to rectify his earlier mistake.
I didn’t change as much as I expected—words here & there, a bad punctuation style where dates follow titles of stories, a boner regarding “The Golem”, & a bit of over-florid writing in the Poe chapter. To explain that Golem business I must confess that when I wrote the treatise I hadn’t read the novel. I had seen the cinema version, & thought it was faithful to the original—but when I came to read the book only a year ago…Holy Yuggoth! The film had nothing of the novel save the mere title & the Prague ghetto setting—indeed, in the book the Golem-monster never appeared at all, but merely lurked in the background as a shadowy symbol. That was one on the old man! —H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 31 Jan 1937, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 415
The revised portion of the essay now reads:
Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, with its haunting shadowy suggestions of marvels and horrors just beyond reach, is laid in Prague, and describes with singular mastery that city’s ancient ghetto with its spectral, peaked gables. The name is derived from a fabulous artificial giant supposed to be made and animated by mediaeval rabbis according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produced in America in 1925, and more recently produced as an opera, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition. —H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”
While this passage shows how scanty was Lovecraft’s knowledge of Jewish religion, history, and lore—he once commented about The Golem, “There is nothing about the Chassidim in it—but the atmosphere is rich enough without ‘em.” (LPS427), because after his encounter with The Dybbuk(1925) he associated Hassidic Jews with Jewish occultism—the episode as a whole shows that Lovecraft was able to digest and appreciate material from varied traditions, even if his understanding was incomplete. He never, for example, shows any awareness that Meyrink was not Jewish, or that Meyrink’s depiction of the golem legend was influenced by non-Jewish esoteric traditions. While it would be difficult to say that The Golem substantially influenced his fiction in any way, Lovecraft certainly seems to have though it enriched his life—and he made an effort to share that experience with the younger writers he associated with.
Thanks to Cora Buhlert for pointing out that I should mention the 1917 and 1920 film.
up noon—window man & curtains—els telephone—out to York to meet him—up to Sonny’s—AM. Mus., Met. Mus. bus to library—gallery & reading room—els lv. read & Automat—down to N’hood playhouse—Dybbuck—bus & subway—els lv. Penn. Sta see Miss L home—W Side pk—return to 169 —H. P. Lovecraft’s diary entry for 17 December 1925, Collected Essays 5.174
By early 1925, H. P. Lovecraft had effectively separated from his wife. She had gone out to the midwest to work, returning to New York every few weeks to see him. He took a room at 169 Clinton Street, in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, which was quickly filling up with immigrants. Unable to find work, away from his wife and his family, and suffering the indignity of a break-in to his apartment in May where even his clothes were stolen, his bias against immigrants had begun to reach a fever pitch in his letters.
In mid-December of 1925, his friend Edward Lloyd Sechrist was in town. There was a new play being performed at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and in between visits with friends such as Frank “Sonny” Belknap Long, Jr. and visits to museums and libraries, theatre was one of the things Lovecraft still liked about New York. They would have gone through the cold streets in their winter suits; bought their tickets, found their way through the theater and waited for the house lights to dim…and in the darkness before the curtain rose a voice called out…
“S. Ansky” was the pen-name of Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, a Jewish author, playwright, and folklorist from the Russian Empire. The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds based on Jewish tradition, was written from 1913-1916 in Russian, then translated to Yiddish; it was first performed in Yiddish in Poland in 1920. It was translated into English by Henry G. Alsberg and Winifred Katzin, and opened at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City on 15 December 1925; it would run about 120 performances.
Contemporary newspaper reviews were mixed; the supernatural was nothing new to theatre, but the weird drama with its spectral plot and unfamiliar setting and references to Jewish culture and religion was undoubtedly a bit different than most audiences or critics were expecting. Keep in mind that Dracula would not hit the stage in New York until 1927; and Fiddler on the Roof would have to wait until 1964.
It would certainly have been novel for Lovecraft. In his native Providence, he had seldom met any Jews. It was not until Lovecraft came to New York that he encountered many Jewish immigrants from Europe, or anything of Jewish culture.
Here exist assorted Jews in the absolutely unassimilated state, with their ancestral beards, skull-caps, and general costumes—which make them very picturesque, and not nearly so offensive as the strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress. In this particular section, where Hebrew books are vended from pushcarts, and patriarchal rabbis totter in high hats and frock coats, there are far less offensive faces than in the general subways of the town—probably because most of the pushing commercial Jews are from another colony where the blood is less pure.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29-30 Sep 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.168
A week after Lovecraft saw “The Dybbuk,” he was composing Yuletide verses for his friends, he wrote to his aunt:
In writing Sechrist I alluded to his Polynesian & African travels, & to the hellish play—“The Dybbuk”—to which he so generously treated me last week:
May Polynesian skies they Yuletide bless, And primal gods impart thee happiness; Zimbabwe’s wonders hint mysterious themes, And ne’er a Dybbuk lurk to mar they dreams!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 22-23 Dec 1925, LFF 1.513-514
The play impressed Lovecraft enough that when he composed his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” for his friend W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal The Recluse, he felt obliged to mention it in the brief section on Jewish influence on weird fiction:
A very flourishing, though till recently quite hidden, branch of weird literature is that of the Jews, kept alive and nourished in obscurity by the sombre heritage of early Eastern magic, apocalyptic literature, and cabbalism. The Semitic mind, like the Celtic and Teutonic, seems to possess marked mystical inclinations; and the wealth of underground horror-lore surviving in ghettoes and synagogues must be much more considerable than is generally imagined. Cabbalism itself, so prominent during the Middle Ages, is a system of philosophy explaining the universe as emanations of the Deity, and involving the existence of strange spiritual realms and beings apart from the visible world, of which dark glimpses may be obtained through certain secret incantations. Its ritual is bound up with mystical interpretations of the Old Testament, and attributes an esoteric significance to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—a circumstance which has imparted to Hebrew letters a sort of spectral glamour and potency in the popular literature of magic. Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, wildly popular through the cinema a few years ago, treats of a legendary artificial giant animated by a mediaeval rabbin of Prague according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produce in America in 1925, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition. —H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927 version), CE 2.100
Several years later, Lovecraft would have occasion to revise “Supernatural Horror in Literature” into its final form; in discussing The Dybbuk he added “and more recently produced as an opera.” The operatic version was in Italian, and ran as Il dibuk in 1934, and made its way to New York by 1935. Lovecraft’s friend Richard F. Searight had seen the opera, and this elicted from the Old Gent in Providence his deepest appreciation of the play:
Your description of the opera “The Dybbuk” is extremely fascinating to me, especially since I had the good luck to see the original play in 1925—when a translation was presented in New York. The mere play (which was very well staged & acted) was impressive enough, & I can well imagine the additional power derived from an appropriate musical score. From our account, I judge that the opera follows the order & events of the drama quite closely. Mention of a dance of beggars vaguely reminds me of something in the play—connected with a garden scene. The exorcism was very powerful, even without music. I surely hope I can encounter the opera sooner or later—though I don’t know when I shall next visit New York. The play produced a very potent impression on me, & I had a vague idea of trying to base a story on the dybbuk idea. I saved my programme—which had copious notes on the particular sect of Jews most addicted to cablistic research (I think they were called the Chassidim)—but that young rascal Long lost it when I lent it to him! Without this ready-made data, I let the story-ida languish—though I suppose I could find out about dybbuks, & about the Chassidim, in the great Jewish Encyclopaedia which is available at most large libraries. [E. Hoffmann] Price got a lot of stuff about Lilith from this source. What is more—this work might shed a picturesque light on the Golem belief. —H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 12 Jun 1936, Letters to E. Hoffmann Price and Richard F. Searight 415-416
“Chassadim” is a reference to Hasidic Judaism, a spiritual revivalist sect that arose in Ukraine in the 18th century, and which spread through Eastern Europe and was carried to the United States by immigrants. Culturally conservative regarding their traditional clothing, it was likely Hasidic Jews who caught Lovecraft’s eye when he arrived in New York.
The idea of Lovecraft drawing inspiration from Jewish folkore is not quite as far-fetched as it might seem. “The Horror at Red Hook,” inspired in part by his experiences in New York, includes references to Lilith and aspects of medieval European occultism connected to or partially derived from Jewish sources (although in this case Lovecraft relied on the Encyclopedia Britannica rather than the Jewish Encyclopedia). The idea of the dybbuk as a possessing spirit has parallels with several of Lovecraft’s stories, notably “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and The Shadow Out of Time, and Lovecraft had written down ideas for other stories in the same vein, which like his Dybbuk-inspired tale, was never to be written.
Ansky’s play is a human drama in a world of spiritual and material forces, intertwined and influencing one anothers; human action has supernatural reprecussions, and supernatural forces can influence and afflict people. It deals with the interplay of these forces, but is focused very much on the people involved, their thoughts and emotions, the stresses they undergo in their daily lives as they strive and struggle and work to fit their role in the world.
Rabbi Azriel suffers his moments of crisis, and even the dybbuk is a sympathetic figure that begs the rabbi not to exorcise him. It is not a the antagonist Hollywood approach to the expelling of an evil spirit or demon at all…and it is notable that Lovecraft, whatever parallels his work may have in the idea of an alien intelligence possessing a body, never offers exorcism as a potential source of hope. The bittersweet ending of would-be bride-and-groom in The Dybbuk is almost the exact opposite of what Lovecraft would concoct as the final fate of Asenath Waite and Edward Derby.
Yet it is easy to see how he might well have been moved by the exorcism scene, the powerful cry of the lost soul clinging onto the one piece of its past that it can, with nowhere else to go and nothing else to anchor itself…and Lovecraft himself was barely clinging on, surrounded by his books and furniture, all that he had taken with him from Providence to the New York he increasingly found alienating and strange.
H. P. Lovecraft would experience and appreciate few works of Jewish culture in his life, yet he held The Dybbuk in high esteem—and we are left to wonder what might have happened, if a program had not been lost, and if Lovecraft had sat down on a park bench one day after careful thought and some research, to pen a new tale.
When I was 6 or 7 I used to be tormented constantly with a peculiar type of recurrent nightmare in which a monstrous race of entities (called by my “Night-Gaunts”—I don’t know where I got hold of the name) used to snatch me up by the stomach (bad digestion?) and carry me off through infinite leagues of black air over the towers of dead and horrible cities. They would finally get me into a grey void where I could see the needlelike pinnacles of enormous mountains miles below. Then they would let drop—and as I gained momentum in my Icarus-like plunge I would start awake in such panic that I hated to think of sleeping again. The “night-gaunts” were black, lean, rubbery things with bared, barbed tails, bat-wings, and no faces at all. Undoubtedly I derived the image from the jumbled memory of Doré’s drawings (largely the illustrations to Paradise Lost) which fascinated me in waking hours. They had no voices, and their only form of real torture was their habit of tickling my stomach (digestion again0 before snatching me up and swooping away with me. I sometimes had the vague notion that they lived in the black burrows honeycombing the pinnacle of some incredibly high mountain somewhere. they seemed to come in flocks of 25 or 50, and would sometimes fling me one to the other. Night after night I dreamed the same horror with only minor variants—but I never struck those hideous mountain peaks before waking. If I had…well, the point is that these things decreased rapidly as I grew older. Each year I believed less and less of the supernatural, and when I was 8 I began to be interested in science and cast off my last shred of religious and other superstitious belief. I do not recall many “night-gaunt” dreams after I was 8—or any after I was 10 or 11. But Yuggoth, what an impression they made on me! 34 years later I chose them as the theme of one of my Fungi….
—H. P. Lovecraft to Virgil Finlay, 24 Oct 1936, Selected Letters 5.335
A common refrain these days is to separate the art from the artist. To distinguish between an appreciation for a creator’s works from an appreciation or an agreement with the author themselves. One could, hypothetically, pick up a book by a mass murderer and enjoy it without knowing anything about the author, or admire a painting at a gallery without any awareness that the artist was a member of the Ku Klux Klan…but this implies a level of ignorance about the creator; the person approaches their work without context, without any expectation or prejudice.
It becomes more difficult to separate the art from the artist when you know more about the creator in question, when the events of their lives and their other works inform various details and themes throughout their ouevre. Such is the case with Howard Phillips Lovecraft—and perhaps more than that.
As understanding of Lovecraft’s life has deepened and spread, so that the portrait of his life has become more complete, so too have the warts become more apparent. Lovecraft was generally kind, well-mannered, generous to a fault within his limited means, and gave tremendous encouragement to many writers, some of whom like Robert Bloch would go on to be amazingly influential themselves. Lovecraft was also, by his own admission, racist, antisemitic, and homophobic. Cultural syntax on these traits has shifted: readers and creators no longer want to passively acknowledge them, some of them want to actively engage with the massive underlying issues of prejudice through Lovecraft…so, contemporary works like “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin, and Trolling Lovecraft (2021) by V. McAfee continue to engage with Lovecraft’s legend and legacy, though in a different way than previous generations.
Somewhere in between the iconic fictional Lovecrafts of the early generations of Mythos authors and the strawmen and monsters of the current generation lies Joyce Carol Oates’ character of Horace Phineas Love, Jr. from her novella “Night-Gaunts.”
H. P. Love, Jr. is, despite many similarities, patently not H. P. Lovecraft. Love is a semiotic ghost, a deliberately distorted vision of Lovecraft’s childhood, reimagined and remixed. Much of their lives have parallel: the father that died of syphilis, the grandfather’s library, the intelligent child that became a weird fiction author as an adult. Yet a great deal of it is not right, too. Lovecraft didn’t have the Scots nurses; or lost the family home; and certainly never found a copy of the Necronomicon in his grandfather’s library. Very likely, Lovecraft didn’t have congenital syphilis either, a point that has constituted an entire thread of Lovecraft scholarship from the time Winfield Townley Scott revealed the cause of Winfield Scott Lovecraft’s death down throuh Victoria Nelson’s “H. P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies”—even though Lovecraft didn’t test positive for the disease during his final illness (see “The Shadow of Syphilis” in Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos).
Which kind of begs the question: if H. P. Love, Jr. is modelled on H. P. Lovecraft but also very deliberately not Lovecraft…why? What is the point? What story is Oates telling us when she writes snippets like:
A young girl-urchin, scarcely ten, opens her soiled dress—bares her white, scrawny chest—tiny breasts, with small pinpoint-nipples—twelve-year-old Horace is astonished—he has never seen anything like this except in certain of the illustrations in his grandfather’s liberary and then never of children so young. It is horrible to see, it is hideous, the aghast boy feels no sex-desire but only pity and sorrow, and fear.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense315
If this was a way for Oates to address a fictional Lovecraft-clone’s apparent asexuality or lack of sexual desire, it’s a damn weird way of doing it. In truth, “Night-Gaunts” gives no direct answers to what it is about. In broad strokes, it is a kind of ghost story, but it is a ghost story that gets a bit lost up its own internal anatomy pursuing the alternative life of very-definitely-not-H. P. Lovecraft in a way that nevertheless seems to reflect very strongly on certain interpretations of the life and characters of H. P. Lovecraft.
A clue might be the image of the birthmark which H. P. Love, Jr. and his syphilitic father H. P. Love, Jr. share; this would appear to be an homage or reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story “The Birth-Mark.” If one keeps the moral of that tale in mind, “Night-Gaunts” might be read as a message and a meditation on Lovecraft—how the focus on the mundane facts of a biography ignores the immortal essence of the legend, in a very “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” way—and that Horace Phineas Love, Jr. is, in effect both aninterpretation of the legendary Lovecraft and a kind of commentary on the same.
If this is the case, it might not be entirely successful. “Night-Gaunts” reminds a great deal of Fred Chappell’s novel Dagon (1987), where the writing is good, but the themes, plot, and characterization never seem to really come together. In weird fiction, the atmosphere and telling of the story count for more than actual plot, but for “Night-Gaunts” there is a sort of postmodern purposelessness to it all: the events of Lovecraft’s life nearly define the contours of the story (except when they don’t; H. P. Love, Jr. never marries), but the internal journey of H. P. Love, Jr. is necessarily incomplete, tasks unfinished, questions unanswered.
Not every question needs an answer—the reader can decide for themselves whether or not the night-gaunts are real—or what writhing form was glimpsed in the master bedroom—but it feels like there should have been, at least, some metafictional flicker of awareness. Something to clue Love or the reader in to what their true connection to Lovecraft was. Absent that, “Night-Gaunts” feels a bit like a love letter to a dead boyfriend…an effort not to communicate to anyone that might read it, but to work out in prose some thoughts and ideas about that semiotic echo of Lovecraft in popular culture, the recluse so many readers have dreamed Lovecraft as rather than the flesh-and-blood man who lived and died.
[…] Regarding the Necronomicon–I must confess that this monstrous & abhorred volume is merely a figment of my own imagination! Inventing horrible books is quite a pastime among devotees of the weird, & ….. many of the regular W.T. contributors have such things to their credit–or discredit. It rather amuses the different writers to use one another’s synthetic demons & imaginary books in their stois–so that Clark Ashton Smith often speaks of my Necronomicon while I refer to his Book of Eibon..& so on. This pooling of resource stents to build up quite a pseudo-convincing background of dark mythology, legendary, & bibliography–though of course none of us has the least wish actually to mislead readers. ….
Yrs. most cordially & sincerely,
H. P. Lovecraft
—H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, 13 Jan 1934, Selected Letters 4.344-346
Margaret D. Sylvester was born in 1918, which made her fifteen years old when she wrote to H. P. Lovecraft, care of Weird Tales, in late 1933 or early 1934. We know little about her life: at the time she was living in Denver, Colorado with her parents and two younger brothers, no doubt going to school and reading pulp magazines for entertainment. She seems to have had a taste for the macabre, and like many fans that wrote to Lovecraft, found that he wrote back. While we don’t know how regular their correspondence was, Lovecraft included her on his list to mail postcards to during his travels, and on his list of correspondents in his instructions in case of decease.
That letter from 13 January 1934 may well be the first; it has something of the tone of an answer, and questions about the Necronomicon was common early on in correspondence with Lovecraft. A long passage before this discusses the witch-cult and Walpurgisnacht, with Lovecraft borrowing from The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray in his answer. “The Dreams in the Witch House” had been published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales, so perhaps that had precipitated the teenaged Margaret to pen a letter to him, filled with questions.
The best insight we have into Margaret Sylvester’s early correspondence with Lovecraft is in the few letters where he mentions her to others; in particular a long passage from mid-1934:
Am still shudderingly admiring the saponaceous monolith–& before I forget it, let me pass on a request for your charitable sculptorial services which I fancy you may wish to grant. A very bright young western correspondent–a damsel of precisely your own years who wrote me through W.T. & is interested in everything weird, especially art–has seen many of your drawings & the Cthulhu photograph (but not Ganesa), & has heard of your powers in clay-modelling & marionette work. Needless to say, her admiration of the Lord Ghu is boundless. Now it happens that she is herself an inveterate puppeteer, having given performances of “Dracula” & other horrors with figures made by herself; & contemplating such future triumphs as “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” & “Beauty & the Beast.” Here is where you come in. Filled with respect for your fertile fancy, she will not be content till she gets a hellish clay head of your conception & workmanship for the Beast figure of “Beauty & the Beast.” Evidently she prefers a typically Barlovian nameless Thing to any conventional phiz. I’ve told her to write you direct–but if she doesn’t, & if you think the honour of representation & credit in an undoubtedly clever & probably oft-repeated marionette show would be sufficient reward for the sculptural effort, you’d better drop her a line yourself asking for mechanical particulars & further ideas. Address: Miss Margaret Sylvester, 4515 East 25th Ave., Denver, Colorado. I’d do it if I were you–since such modelling is an intrinsic pleasure. You’ll probably find this kid an interesting correspondent, too–very bright, though not a writer so far as I know. And a great admirer of your cinema hero Singor Lugosi. —H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 22 Aug 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 166
“Lord Ghu” was one of Lovecraft’s nicknames for Barlow, who had taken to modeling figures in clay, including a tablet-image of Cthulhu and a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha. “Singor Lugosi” would be actor Bela Lugosi, whose filmography included Dracula (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), White Zombie (1932), Chandru the Magician (1932), The Black Cat (1934), and The Return of Chandru (1934).
As it happened, Barlow declined the project. However, Barlow did agree to loan “Little Maggie” his copy of Gustav Meyrinck’s The Golem, which was currently being read by Catherine Lucille Moore; one can imagine the young Margaret Sylvester’s surprise to get a package from Weird Tales author C. L. Moore in the mail one day. Margaret Sylvester would in turn forward the book to Lovecraft’s correspondent Duane W. Rimel when she was done with it.
In about May 1935, a chain letter was sent to Lovecraft—Margaret Sylvester is the name immediately before Lovecraft’s. He forwarded the chain letter, including a few judicious remarks, to Barlow for his amusement.
So you’ve had several of the chain things come, eh? I’ve seen only two so far–Bro. Hadley’s & Little Maggie’s. The latter child seems to be in the business–indeed, according to press reports it started in her town. —H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 275
No doubt the letters in 1935 would have included mention of her poetry:
Angelus, 1935 East Side High School Yearbook, page 135
There are some indications that Lovecraft may have recruited Margaret for the National Amateur Press Association c. 1936, but if she ever published her “credential”, it is not known where or when. No doubt the letters from 1934-1936 were filled with a mix of Lovecraft’s typical accounts of news & travel and whatever topics that the two found of interest to share and discuss…such as Margaret Sylvester’s graduation from North Side High School in Denver, Colorado, and her aims at higher education.
You missed little Maggie Sylvester by only a few days, since she set out for the metropolis on the 11th. I’m telling Leedle Meestah Stoiling to extend her a welcome. Her address is now 157 E. 57th St., N.Y.C. —H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 16 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 360
And little Maggie Sylvester of Denver is in New York for an art course or something–to be addressed at 157 E. 37th St. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Sep 1936, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 649
Leedle Meestah Stoiling cut the Harvard Tercentenary in order to stay longer in N Y with his parents. He tried to see little Maggie, but had to proceed to Cambridge before he could find her at home. —H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 30 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 363
“Leedle Meestah Stoiling” was Kenneth Sterling, another of Lovecraft’s young correspondents, with whom Lovecraft would collaborate on “In the Walls of Eryx.” It is not clear where in New York Margaret Sylvester attended art school, but her 2010 death certificate reads: “Some college credit, but no degee.” so for whatever reason she did not graduate. Perhaps she found a job; we know that in 1940 she married Frank Ronan, and took his name as Margaret Ronan. She was employed by Scholastic Publications as a critic, writer, and editor, publishing both anthologies and nonfiction books with a distinct horror bent aimed at the children/young adult market. In 1971 she edited The Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror, which may have been many a teen’s first introduction to Lovecraft, and there she wrote:
With his correspondents, Howard Lovecraft could relax. His letters, written in tiny, crabbed writing, are full of sly humor. Instead of a return address and a date, they could bear such headings as “Black Marsh of Gthath, Hour that the Ooze Stirs,” or “Black Cylinder Floating between Two Universes, Hour of the Burning Galaxy.” In one letter he sent to me, he refers to a description of himself given by a mutual friend: “As it happens, several points in Mr. Sterling’s word-picture are misleading. It is out of my right, not left shoulder that the ropy tentacles grow. What grows out of the left shoulder is one of my four eyeless heads. This head is not to be confused with the one growing out of my right elbow (the one with the green fangs).” —Margaret Ronan, “A Word to the Reader”
An extract from a single letter to Margaret Sylvester (13 January 1934) was published in Lovecraft’s Selected Letters IV. Arthur S. Koki obviously contacted Margaret Ronan, because he cites and quotes from several of her letters in his 1962 M.A. thesis “H. P. Lovecraft: An Introduction to His Life and Writings.” Most of these are fairly small and give little of the flavor of their correspondence, but two fragments stand out, the first on the death of Robert E. Howard (which occurred on 11 June 1936) and the second on the issue of marriage:
I doubt whether there was any definite cause aside from Mrs. Howard’s approaching death. As I see it, it was simply the disastrous combination of a certain kind of temperament with one sharp blow. Probably it would never have occurred if good old Two-Gun hadn’t been watching sleepless by his mother’s bedside for endless weeks. He was nervously & physically exhausted by those weeks of overwork, sleeplessness & tension–brooding deeply (as shown by poems like ‘The Tempter’) even though putting up a brave front to the outside world. Then came despair–& the consciousness that the fight for his mother’s life was hopeless. With no energy to resist the shock–no fund of healthy life-clinging, nerve-twisting strain–poor REH reacted in what must have seemed the shortest & simplest way. And what a damned shame! But of course I suppose general temperament was a factor. Despite his violent, assertive contempt for the “artistic attitude,” Two-Gun was essentially of the neurotic aesthetic type–that is, a person filled with imaginative concepts of certain conditions unrelated to reality which he would like to see around him, & correspondingly resentful of the pressure of the actual world. —H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, October 1936, Koki 298-299
I do not regard marriage as a social superfluity, but believe it has extreme stabilizing value in the organization of a state Its advantages are numerous & varied–& are indeed so apparent to the unbiased anthropologist that even Soviet Russia (where no traditional institution is kept up for tradition’s sake alone) is beginning to urge its systematic maintenance & more faithful & universal practice. —H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, n.d. (Jan 1937?), Koki 212
Presumably, most of the surviving letters from Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester are in private hands. It is known that there are three letters at the John Hay Library, including the full 13 January 1934 letter that is excerpted in the Selected Letters. Also included is a letter believed to date from February 1937—one of the last letters that Lovecraft would write—with the address given as “Cave of the Crumbling Bones.” A copy of this letter was in the collection of actor Christopher Lee, who brought it out during the episode “Demons” on the series 100 Years of Horror (1996).
We can only speculate how much the correspondence with Lovecraft shaped a young Margaret Sylvester’s life. No doubt she was already on her macabre path, but no doubt too that he gave her encouragement to pursue those interests.
Having finally broken away from Dorchester & attained Copley Square, I at last met in person the celebrated leader of United affairs whom I have known in letters for seven years—Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw of Rocky Mount, N.C., & Washington, D.C. In aspect stout & homely, she is in conversation pleasant, cultivated, & intelligent; with all the force of mind & speech becoming a philosopher, poet, & professor of English, drama, & public speaking. […] At the School of Expression the only amateurs were Mrs. Renshaw & her travelling companion Miss Crist—a colourless young woman who acts as her secretary, typist, & general caretaker; reminding her when she leaves her handbag behind or fails to put on her hat—for Mrs. R. has all the absent-mindedness of genius. […] The conversation consisted almost exclusively of philosophical argument, in which Mrs. R. has all the facility & urbanity of James F. Morton Jr. […] Mrs. McMullen played & sang her “Bumble Fairy”, & Mrs. Renshaw sang two songs (of which she wrote the words) in an excellent controlato, with Miss Crist as accompanist. […] Mrs. Renshaw, who had evidently acquired some of that flattering tendency which is inherent in the air of country villages like Boston, insisted that I ought to write a textbook on English—offering to see to its publication & introduce it in classes at Research University, where she is not head of the English Department. This rather reminded me of the high-flown pipe-dreams of Alnaschar—but another of her commercial suggestions was really practical so far as appearances go. This latter was a plan for me to correct & criticise by mail a number of English themes each week—the exercises of Mrs. R’s classes at the University. Such a procedure would, if the price were sufficiently high, be rather less horrible than Bush work—but there was no time that evening to discuss details. Plans with financial features usually fall through, so I am not yet planning what make of automobile I shall purchase with the fortune gained by text book authorship & associate professorship! —H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 19 Aug 1921, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.37-40
In 1914, Anne Vyne Tillery and H. P. Lovecraft first encountered each other in the pages of amateur journalism. They were of an age; Tillery was born in 1899, and Lovecraft in 1890, and had both been recruited to the United Amateur Press Association, the smaller and younger of the two nationwide amateur journalism organizations in existence at the time, and from the first Lovecraft wrote admiringly of her poetry:
“A Garden of Silence and Roses” introduces to the firmament of amateur journalism a new star, in the person of Miss Annie Vyne Tillery, author of professionally published books and poems. Miss Tillery’s style is at once deep and delicate, pervaded throughout with a poetic fervour seldom observed in products of the youthful pen. —H. P. Lovecraft, “Department of Public Criticism” United Amateur 14, no. 2 (Nov 1914), CE 1.14
“The Dirge of the Great Atlantic”, by Anne Vyne Tillery Renshaw, is a grim and moving bit of verse, cast in the same primitively stirring metre which this author used in her professionally published poem, “The Chant of Iron”. Mrs. Renshaw possesses an enviable power to reach the emotions through the medium of the written word. —H. P. Lovecraft “Department of Public Criticism” United Amateur 14, no. 3 (Jan 1915), CE 1.20
Anne Tillery was educated at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., attended school in Baltimore and Dr. Curry’s Professional School (presumably Curry School of Expression, now Curry College). She had published a collection of verse, Moods, Mystical and Otherwise (1914), and was actively engaged as a writer and educator specializing in public speaking (then called “expression”) and English.
On 10 December 1914, Anne married Joseph Wilroy Renshaw, a lawyer, and became Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw. Her husband was either already involved in amateur journalism or became involved in it soon after, because in 1915 they launched their joint amateur journal Ole’ Miss (Anne having been raised in Mississippi, and both she and her husband were Southerners.) Lovecraft wrote of the new journal:
Ole’ Miss for March, edited by Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Renshaw, easily falls into the very front rank of the season’s amateur journals. In this number Mr. Joseph W. Renshaw makes his initial appearance before the members of the United, producing a very favourable impression with his pure, attractive prose. The introduction, credited in another column to Mr. Renshaw, is of graceful and pleasing character, recalling the elusively beautiful atmosphere of the Old South which is too soon passing away. —H. P. Lovecraft “Department of Public Criticism” United Amateur 14, no. 5 (May 1915), CE 1.40
Both Lovecraft and Mrs. Renshaw quickly began to rise in the ranks of the United; when Lovecraft was elected first vice president in 1915, Renshaw was elected second vice president, and the two collaborated on efforts to recruit new members to the cause of amateur journalism. He also served as assistant editor to Renshaw in the amateur journal Credential, which was aimed at new members (the first piece published by a new member was referred to as their “credential.”)
Despite being perhaps Lovecraft’s oldest and longest-lasting woman correspondent who was not a member of his family, the surviving letters between Lovecraft and Mrs. Renshaw are few. However, we know they must have had a fairly robust correspondence for the first few years of their acquaintance, because aside from amateur affairs Lovecraft had joined with Renshaw and her friend Mrs. J. G. Smith in the Symphony Literary Service, a revision service where Lovecraft handled verse. It isn’t clear how long this service lasted, but it seems to have been Lovecraft’s foot in the door to freelance revision work and ghostwriting, which would become one of his major sources of income in life. The first few letters we have from Lovecraft and Renshaw date to the 1918 period, a mix of amateur affairs, poetical disputes (Lovecraft disliked free verse, while Renshaw was an advocate for free expression), and current affairs.
Lovecraft supported Renshaw during her successful candidacy in 1919 as Official Editor of the United, and she seems to have been otherwise keeping busy in teaching and publishing:
Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw, with characteristic energy, has transferred her interests from State College, Pa., to Washington, D.C. During the autumn she was circulation manager of The Suffragist, a large illustrated monthly, whose subscription department she practically revitalised with her efficient management. She has now accepted a chair at Research University, becoming head of the English Department with the title of Professor. Mrs. Renshaw receives the sympathy of the Association upon the death of Mr. Renshaw in November, and upon the illness of her mother at the same time. —H. P. Lovecraft, “News Notes” United Amateur 20, No. 2 (Nov 1920), CE 1.265
J. W. Renshaw died in November 1920, probably of pneumonia. We know little of their marriage; they had no children, and Mrs. Renshaw would never remarry. After his death, she was located primarily in Washington, D.C.; she met Lovecraft for the first time in 1921 in Boston. The suggestion she made that Lovecraft revise student work was apparently acted upon, because sometime later Lovecraft wrote:
Amateur journalism’s connexion with Penn State (circa 1919-22, if memory serves aright) was established through one of our members—a Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw, now head of a school of elocution in Washington—who went there as an associate professor. She organised her classes into a literary club connected with the United Amateur Press Association, hence we of the Association handled a good deal of their work & assisted them to some extent in a critical way. [Fred Lewis] Pattee was there at the time, & Mrs. Renshaw sometimes spoke of him—indeed, she sent me a copy of his weird novel, “The House of the Black Ring.” —H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 13 Feb 1935, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 258
Lovecraft and Renshaw met again in 1925 when he came as a tourist to Washington, where she drove him about on a sightseeing tour:
[…] our attention was distracted by a hail from the road, where was fast approaching the Renshaw car, with its owner, Sechrist, and a prepossessing gentlewoman of early middle age as occupants. Mrs. R. had, it seems, arriv’d at the Monument immediately after our departure; and having pickt up Sechrist, follow’d us along the course we had told him we wou’d take. With the years this lady hath become a person of much importance in Washington, being now a select teach of dramatic and oratorical method, and prominent in female political circles. (Republican) She is, however, wholly unspoilt; and shew’d extreme kindness in absenting herself from most of her guests and spending the whole day in the guidance of our party, despite the protests we mixt with our profound thanks. […] The car, being small, seated just the five persons present: Mrs. R. (Driving) and Miss D. in font, and myself, Sechrist, and Kirk (reading left to right) on the rear seat). […] There, in the mellow glow of an afternoon no longer young, Mrs. Renshaw deposited Kirk, Christ, and me upon the pavement for a pedestrian finale; herself driving off toward her ome with Miss Dashiel, accompany’d by the most profound and sincere gratitude of the voyagers. We apologised for our inability to accompany her and meet her other guests, as she had wished; but I regret that I have so far fail’d—amidst the rush of the past week—to write her and Sechrist those expressions of thanks and pleasure which urbanity demands. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 21 Apr 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.274-275, 286
We hear little of the Renshaw/Lovecraft correspondence over the next few years; both of them drifted away from the central role they had held in amateur affairs, and Mrs. Renshaw was herself busy with teaching and running her own school in Washington, D.C., where public speaking and oratory were key skills for politicians. It is possible that there were gaps in their correspondence, which might account for why so few letters survive; or that many of them simply concerned business matters which neither considered worth preserving; Lovecraft used the backs of some letters for writing drafts of his stories.
Still, she must have continued to push at least occasional revision work Lovecraft’s way:
[…] our old-time fellow-amateur Mrs. Renshaw has reappear’d on the horizon with a lot of overflow theme papers from her school to be criticis’d and graded. All this means cash for coach-drivers, of course—but it also means work—and nothing repels and discourages me more than the latter. —H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 14 Mar 1930, Selected Letters 3.130
While revision didn’t pay much, the amounts that Lovecraft did receive no doubt helped in part to fund his excursions to Florida, Louisiana, and Quebec.
It is hard to say at this point what exactly the relationship was between Anne Tillery Renshaw and H. P. Lovecraft. They were friends, certainly, but they do not appear to have had the sort of mentor-mentee relationship that Lovecraft had with some of the younger women writers, professional or amateur, that he would get to know. There is little doubt that Lovecraft saw Renshaw as a peer, and if they did not agree on everything, he seems to have respected her intelligence and the force of her arguments. Unfortunately, it is difficult to say what common ground they might have shared being writing & poetry in general, as Renshaw does not seem to have had any particular interest in weird fiction.
The commercial side of their dealings is harder to pin down, although it would become the focus of their final and most substantial surviving communications. Anne Tillery Renshaw was at this point dean of the Renshaw School of Speech, whose curriculum was based on the Curry Method (a system of public speaking that included a combination of technical exercises and encouragement to express real emotion and natural gestures), and she availed on Lovecraft to help write a textbook for a new course—much as she had proposed some fifteen years earlier, when they first met in Boston.
Lovecraft was already busy with other jobs in 1936, but agreed to take the work on—he needed the money.
I now made an attempt to go on with the one revision job which I have not yet returned—in the hope that I might be able to perform at least part of it & receive remuneration therefor. Results remain doubtful, since the more original parts will need leisure & concentration. It is a text-book on English usage by Mrs. Renshaw—& most of my time today was spent in straightening out historical & mythological errors in the section where certain familiar allusions are explained. —H. P. Lovecraft to Annie E. P. Gamwell, Diary for 29 March 1936, LFF 2.991
Notes on the massive revision job reoccur in Lovecraft’s letters throughout 1936, and the stress built up as Lovecraft required extensions on the original deadline.
I had a hell of a siege getting that Renshaw ghost-writing job done on time—the deadline having been extended a bit. The last chapter—where I had to dope out a complete reading course in literature, the sciences, & the arts, mentioning the latest text-books in fields covering the rapidly changing sciences–was the really killing part. At the end I had to work 60 hours without sleep—but I finally got the damn thing into the mails. There may be more to do on it yet—& the trivial detail of price is not yet settled. If Mrs. Renshaw tries to drive me under 200 bucks, she’s a cheap skate! —H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 30 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian! 363
As a matter of fact, owing to the lateness, Lovecraft only requested $100 for the massive job…and got it.
In fact, much of what Lovecraft had written was seriously abridged or cut from the final book, which was published as Well-Bred Speech (1936). Lovecraft performed the final revisions amiably enough:
Well—I am still working on that Renshaw text-book. The manuscript, considerably abridged, came back once more for revision, & now (am reading the printer’s proofs & catching a number of errors therein.) The job is being handled by the Standard Press of 930 H. St., N.W.—perhaps you know of it. It will have to be done & delivered by Nov. 5th, since the course involving the book opens on the 6th. Haste has made this job more difficult than it would otherwise have been. —H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 29 Oct 1936, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 344
It is not clear whether Lovecraft and Renshaw corresponded during the final months of his life remaining to him, although his last, unfinished letter to James F. Morton in 1937 includes reference to the ordeal of getting the manuscript together.
Anne Tillery Renshaw continued to teach, lecture, and write until her death on 24 June 1944.
For twenty-two years of correspondence (1914-1936), very little survives. Ten letters from Lovecraft to Renshaw are published in The Letters of Elizabeth Toldridge and Anne Tillery Renshaw, along with the previously unpublished sections of Well Bred Speech that Lovecraft wrote but were cut from the final product. Portions of six of these letters were previously published in the Arkham House Selected Letters. Eight letters & cards from Anne Tillery Renshaw to Lovecraft, all dating from 1935-1936, have been scanned and may be viewed online at the John Hay Library website.
For I have always been a seeker, a dreamer, and a ponderer on seeking and dreaming; and who can say that such a nature does not open latent eyes sensitive to unsuspected worlds and orders of being?
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean” (1936)
From 28 July to 1 September 1936, R. H. Barlow visited H. P. Lovecraft for what would be the final time. Barlow had just turned 18 the previous May, and his parent’s marriage was on the point of deterioration; the young man was destined to stay with relatives in Kansas City, and a brief term at the Kansas City Art Institute. But for over a month he roomed at the boarding house near Lovecraft’s home on 66 College Street, and it was presumably at this time that Lovecraft made some revisions to Barlow’s story “The Night Ocean.”
A few paragraphs of this story had first been published as “A Fragment” in The Californian Winter 1935 issue. The Californian was the amateur journal of Hyman Bradofsky, one to which Lovecraft and a few of his friends such as Natalie H. Wooley also contributed, and Lovecraft was luring Barlow into amateur journalism, at least for a brief spell. Lovecraft mentions “The Night Ocean” among items he hadn’t seen before Barlow’s visit (O Fortunate Floridian! 353), so it seems clear that this was a story Barlow had been working on for quite some time. There is some evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that Barlow was at loose ends during this period, trying many different things—art, writing, printing, poetry—to see where his talents were best suited, and this included writing a passel of fiction, some of it carefully, some of it hastily.
Lovecraft apparently showed some of these fictional efforts to August Derleth during or shortly after Barlow’s stay, including an intriguing piece titled “I Hate Queers” which does not appear to have survived. After passing along Derleth’s criticism, Lovecraft wrote:
Barlow appreciates your criticism immensely, & will doubtless be guided by them in future attempts. He is now, of course, in a purely experimental stage—scarcely knowing what he wants to write, or whether he wants to write at all…as distinguished from painting, printing, bookbinding, &c. My own opinion is that writing best suits him–but I think he does better in fantasy than in realism. A recent atmospheric sketch of his—”The Night Ocean”—is quite Blackwoodian in its power of dark suggestion.—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 23 Sep 1936, Essential Solitude 2.748
Lovecraft’s suggested revisions for “The Night Ocean” were somewhat uncharacteristically light. While we often think of Lovecraft essentially re-writing stories, in this case his changes only amount to less than 10% of the work. A typed manuscript with Lovecraft’s handwritten revisions survives, and is reproduced in facsimile in Lovecraft Annual #8. Barlow then prepared a fresh typescript incorporating most (but not all) of Lovecraft’s suggested revisions, which was submitted and accepted by Bradofsky, who published it in Winter 1936 issue of The Californian. In his letters, Lovecraft praised Barlow and the story:
Glad to know that you’ve been in touch with Kansas City’s brilliant new citizen, & hope you’ll be able to meet the little imp in person before long. He is certainly one of the brightest & most promising kids I have ever seen—gifted alike in literature, art, & various forms of craftsmanship—& despite his present scattering of energies in different fields I think he will go far in the end. His studies at the Art Institute will undoubtedly be very good for him, & help him to establish a sort of aesthetic orientation. Hope he’ll meet your uncle amidst the academic maze—though the size of the institution doubtless minimises the chances of accidental contact. Barlow has been growing fast in a literary as well as artistic way—as you doubtless deduced from his “Dim-Remembered Story” in The Californian. A still later tale of his—”The Night Ocean”, also scheduled for The Californian—shows an even greater advance, being really one of the finest atmospheric studies ever written by a member of the group. —H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 21 Nov 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 213
As much as Lovecraft is sometimes held to include autobiographical elements in his stories, it’s hard not to see something of young Barlow in the the nameless narrator; a sensitive artist who holds himself apart from the crude masses of normal people. Whose sensitive soul opens him to vague fears when they finally achieve the isolation they had thought they wanted:
That the place was isolated I have said, and this at first pleased me; but in that brief evening hour when the sun left a gore-splattered decline and darkness lumbered on like an expanding shapeless blot, there was an alien presence about the place: a spirit, a mood, an impression that came from the surging wind, the gigantic sky, and that sea which drooled blackening waves upon a beach grown abruptly strange. At these times I felt an uneasiness which had no very definite cause, although my solitary nature had made me long accustomed to the ancient silence and the ancient voice of nature. These misgivings, to which I could have put no sure name, did not affect me long, yet I think now that all the while a gradual consciousness of the ocean’s immense loneliness crept upon me, a loneliness that was made subtly horrible by intimations—which were never more than such—of some animation or sentience preventing me from being wholly alone.
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean”
Massimo Barruti, who has examined “The Night Ocean” in the greatest depth in his book Dim-Remembered Stories: A Critical Study of R. H. Barlow notes that the story is a “textbook example of the extreme sensitiveness and poetic attitude of Barlow’s personality” (102)—the mental degeneration brought by isolation and a too-active imagination causes the protagonist to question reality, even as he populates his nighttime seashore with nameless terrors. Imagine an Innsmouth without any Deep Ones, yet none the less haunting for their absence, to one of sufficient temperament to imagine croaking voices by night, or hear something sinister in the splash of water.
“The Night Ocean” is Barlow at his most Lovecraftian. He never tries to pastiche Lovecraft exactly, or to tie his artist’s strange fears, longing, and imagined horrors into anything from Lovecraft’s nascent Mythos, although readers can certainly draw such connections themselves. Instead, Barlow reproduces the atmosphere and themes of Lovecraft, tries to capture and express the cosmicism—perhaps in homage to his mentor, perhaps as a reflection to how much of an influence Lovecraft had on him. Brian Humphreys explored this in detail in “‘The Night Ocean’ and the Subtleties of Cosmicism” in Lovecraft Studies #30. One thing that Humphreys notes is: “He has left society to be alone, yet feels lonely in his solitude” (18).
Which could well be said of Barlow himself.
While he has achieved a posthumous notoriety as one of Lovecraft’s homosexual friends and correspondents, Barlow does not seem to have expressed his sexuality in his published fiction in any overt manner, or even by obvious metaphor or allegory. There might have been something in “I Hate Queers” that addressed his experience as a closeted homosexual growing up in a very homophobic society, but that piece no longer appears to be extant…and it is worth a little digression to ask what we know about Barlow’s sexuality and how we know it.
Like several of Lovecraft’s young proteges, Barlow became an active homosexual. His homosexuality, however, may not have developed until after Lovecraft’s death; at least, Lovecraft apparently never knew of his young friend’s deviation.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), 190
As far as I have been able to determine, de Camp was the first writer to publicly “out” Barlow as homosexual. Lovecraft never mentions this in his letters, nor does E. Hoffmann Price in his memoirs The Book of the Deadmentions Barlow in California, but gives no hint of homosexuality, and none of the memorial pieces after Barlow’s passing mention it. Given the atmosphere of prejudice regarding homosexuality at the time, if any of those who knew Barlow did know about his sexuality, they might have deliberately avoided mention to preserve his memory and reputation. That being said, rumors of Barlow’s sexuality had apparently been circulating for some time within some circles:
Barlow is for sure a homo; from what I have heard, so was the late minister-weird taler Henry S. Whitehead. Any anybody with a mandarin moustache is vulnerable to the kind of flattery, larding I can do very well.
—August Derleth to Donald Wandrei, 21 March 
Derleth had not met either Whitehead or Barlow in person; it is possible that his intuition on Barlow’s sexuality was based entirely on the “I Hate Queers” manuscript and his own experiences. While this is speculative, it could be that the story dealt with a homosexual man who assumed a homophobic persona to better conceal his own sexuality. While this might seem like a stretch, in Barlow’s 1944 autobiographical essay he recalls something of this mindset:
Once I saw a man bring a sailor up to his room and thought of protesting to the management. A blond clerk and a Basque elevator boy—man, rather—caught my eye, and I took them out once or twice to drink at my expense.
—R. H. Barlow, “Autobiography” in O Fortunate Floridian! 411
This autobiographical essay is the most singularly definitive proof we have of Barlow’s sexuality; he very clearly describes his interests, even if he does not record any detailed encounters. When describing his stay with Claire and Groo Beck in California, he wrote:
I could not decide which of the Beck boys to fall in love with and vacillated continually. Claire had a mania for bathing, and I saw him once or twice quite naked. He had a nice prick, uncircumcised. At other times he found excuses to go downstairs from the bath to the living room, dressed only in skin-tight drawers, which also showed him off to advantage. (ibid. 410)
It’s not clear if de Camp read this essay among Barlow’s papers, or whether he picked up the rumors about Barlow’s sexuality. There are many inaccuracies in de Camp’s rendering of Lovecraft and other figures, so it is not beyond the pale to think that de Camp presented rumors as fact. His last word on Barlow in the book is a good example of what he could write without citing any sources:
All this time, however, Barlow energetically pursued his career as a homosexual lover. This was long before Gay Liberation, and Mexico has been if anything less tolerant of sexual deviation than the United States. On January 2, 1951, Barlow killed himself with an overdose of sedatives, because he was being blackmailed for his relations with Mexican youths.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), 431-432
This interpretation of Barlow’s death has since become generally accepted, mainly because no one else has come up with a better reason for Barlow’s suicide at about the height of his career. William S. Burroughs who was present in Mexico at the time and commented on Barlow’s suicide does mention that Barlow was “queer”, but does not mention blackmail. Barlow himself asserts in his autobiography that by 1944 he had “a good part of the material things I have desired—money, sex, a small reputation for ability […]” (O Fortunate Floridian! 407) so de Camp’s assertion is not impossible—merely unconfirmed, and perhaps unconfirmable.
Questions of how “out” Barlow was remain essentially unanswered. He did not, for the most part, grow up in any urban area which might have had an active homosexual subculture to be out in; and what can be reconstructed of his adult life shows him very candid about his sexuality but also not, apparently, flaunting it. The earliest possible hint of his burgeoning sexuality might have been an entry in his 1933 diary for May 23:
Back at George’s again, when he & Si arrived, Si went calmly about cleaning up, in a semi-nude condition. It is perhaps indiscreet to record such observations on paper, for my meaning might be misconstrued, but he looked lovely and young and strong and clean…He is a fine boy; the nicest, I believe, I have ever known. Too, he treats me decently, something no other has ever done.
It isn’t clear who “Si” is, although apparently George and Si are neighbors of the 15 year-old Barlow in or around Deland, Florida. If this is an indication of Barlow’s early awareness of his sexuality, it predated his first meeting with Lovecraft in 1934.
Which brings us back, after a long digression, to Barlow and “The Night Ocean.” Because however much of himself Barlow may have poured into the story, the mood he captured regards that which is not simply mysterious, but unknowable. There are secrets which we cannot fathom, no matter how hard we try…and the narrator accepts this as something essential to the very nature of the sea itself:
The night ocean withheld whatever it had nurtured. I shall know nothing more.
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean”
There is much about R. H. Barlow’s life that we will never know; no matter what bits and pieces wash upon the beach for us to find, there are some things we cannot know. Why did he take his own life? Who did de Camp get his information from? Did Lovecraft ever pick up on his young friend’s sexuality? Shapes in the waves as the sun sets, shadows on the water that suggest more than they define. “The Night Ocean” is not a metaphor for Barlow’s life; he could not know when he wrote it in 1935-1936 what the skein of his career would be, in terms of who he would become Barlow had hardly been born yet. Yet it is a very Lovecraftian story…and R. H. Barlow lived, and ultimately died, a very Lovecraftian death.
“The Night Ocean” by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft may be read for free online here.
It is, unquestionably, the product of the lost dinosaur’s egg that has somehow, somewhere, mysteriously hatched itself. We believed them to be petrified in the rock, yet in some miraculous way the germ of life was not destroyed.
—Katherine Metcalf Roof, “A Million Years After” in Weird Tales November 1930
It was her only story in Weird Tales, though she wrote for other magazines; and had books to her credit, fiction and nonfiction. H. P. Lovecraft might have run across her work before, in Ghost Stories or the Argosy All-Story, though if he did he never mentioned it. Yet what brought her to Lovecraft’s attention, and the reason why he wrote about Katharine Metcalf Roof at all in his letters, is because of this tale—which earned the cover illustration in this issue—and that ties in to events that had occurred long years before, and some of the most important discoveries in the history of early paleontology.
It begins with one of H. P. Lovecraft’s first trips to New York in 1922, where he visited with his friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr:
Monday Long & I explored the American Museum of Natural History—examining it in far greater detail than did Kleiner & I a couple of weeks ago. Long appreciates science & nature more than Kleiner does—he is a marvellous kid, far above the average “amateur journalist” type. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 13 Sep 1922, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.63-64
While innocuous, it was apparently during this trip that Long or Lovecraft conceived of a story…one that would germinate for some years without being written. Lovecraft would chide his friend:
Grandpa thought he’d write and tell you that he hath just perused Wells’ Thirty Strange Stories! Magnificent plots, but how prosaically handled when one compares them to Machen’s work! I do not think Aepyornis Island anticipates your dinosaur egg story, and advise you to write the latter. Think of the difference—the dinosaur belongs to aeons immemorially remote and unconnected with anything in human experience, whilst the museum-cellar hatching can be handled with a creepiness wholly alien to anything in wells. Your idea is far the stronger, and Grandpa will spank you if you don’t write your story like a nice boy! —H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 26 Jan 1924, Selected Letters 1.287
The Æpyornis maximus was a large flightless bird native to Madagascar; in “Æpyornis Island” (1895) by H. G. Wells, a fossil hunter collecting some of the eggs of the supposedly extinct animal is surprised when it hatches. Such “living fossil” stories sometimes caught the imagination, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World(1912), and dinosaurs in a variety of settings were far from strangers in the pages of Weird Tales.
Yet dinosaur eggs were cutting edge news at the time. In the 1920s, Roy Chapman Andrews carried out the Central Asiatic Expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History, including fossil-hunting in the until-then largely inaccessible Gobi desert of Mongolia. In 1923 he discovered the first dinosaur eggs and nests, which in time were shipped back to the museum in New York…there to whet the imaginations of H. P. Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long.
Sunday we answered advertisements and hoped for the best, but Monday we decided to have some fun whilst life might last, so went to the American Museum of Natural History. Here we lingered over the illuminated bird displays […] and noted in passing the famous dinosaur eggs discovered by the museum’s Mongolian expedition. The latter were not impressive—being the eggs of a very small dinosaur, the ancestor of the later massive species. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 20 Aug 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.147
Lovecraft encouraged his friend to write the story, but Long did not, whether from lack of interest or fear of plagiarizing Wells’ plot is unknown. The idea sat, unused. In 1928, another visit is recorded:
I rose at noon & went up to Sonny’s to meet our client Mrs. Reed, who was in town Sun. & Mon. She seems quite prepossessing & intelligent. After her departure Sonny & I went to the Nat. Hist. Museum, where we both bought 25¢ dinosaur paperweights. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29 May 1928, Letters to Family & Family Friends 676
Perhaps this visit encouraged Lovecraft to think of writing the story himself. In 1928 he recorded in his Commonplace Book, where he jotted down many story ideas: “What hatches from primordial egg.” (36)
Yet Lovecraft & Long did not write the story. Ultimately, Katharine Metcalf Roof did.
This vexed Lovecraft to no end.
The dinosaur’s egg story was simply a minus quantity—but it made me curse, because I thought of that same plot just eight years ago (before any real dinosaurs’ eggs were discovered) & urged kid Belknap to develop it in connexion with his beloved American Museum, within walking distance of which he’s lived all his young life. I went so far as to make inquiries of a sub-curator as to whether dinosaurs probably laid real eggs, or whether they were semi-viviparous like some other reptilia. On being told that they were probably truly oviparous, I renewed my urging that Belknap write the tale, but just about that time he read Wells’ “Æpyornis Island”, & thought that any prehistoric-egg story would just constitute a plagiarism. I told him that such an idea was nonsense—& just then the news came of the finding of the first actual dinosaur eggs by an expedition from Belknap’s own pet museum! Afterward I thought of writing the tale myself, though I always shelved the idea in favour of others. And now comes the miserable hash—so poor that nothing but its idea could possibly have won it first place & cover-design. If only Belknap or I had gone ahead & written a real story on the theme! Heaven knows—I may yet, for the idea is none the less mine because of this independent use—or abuse—of it. But if I do use the primordial egg idea, I may introduce variants. Perhaps it won’t bring forth a dinosaur at all, but instead, a hellish half-man of the pre-human Tsathogguan period! —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 245-246
But what makes me maddest about this issue, damn it, is the dinosaur’s egg story given first place and cover design. Rotten—cheap—puerile—yet winning prime distinction because of the subject matter. Now didn’t Grandpa tell a bright young man just eight years ago this month to write a story like that? Didn’t Grandpa go and ask at the American Museum about dinosaur eggs (then known only hypothetically) to see whether they were hard or soft, and didn’t he tell flaming youth to write a nightmare of a yarn about what lumbered about in the museum basement at night? And then didn’t a timid youth go and refuse to do it just because he’d read H. G. Wells’ Æpyornis Island? Fie, Sir! Somebody else wasn’t so afraid of the subject—and now a wretched mess of hash, just on the strength of its theme, gets the place of honour that Young Genoa might have had! Now, Sir, let this teach you not to be so scareful about general similarities in future! You ought to know that the style is the thing, and that subject-matter is relatively immaterial, It’s the development which makes a tale one’s own or not one’s own. Why, damn it, boy, I’ve half a mind to write an egg story myself right now—though I fancy my primal ovoid would hatch out something infinitely more palaeogean and unrecognisable than the relatively commonplace dinosaur. —H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 17 Oct 1930, Selected Letters 3.186-187
Nor was Lovecraft entirely alone in this opinion of Roof’s tale:
The “dinosaur egg” was truly rotten;—and I don’t blame you for cursing. I, too, would go ahead and use the idea, which could certainly be developed to great advantage by a good writer. —Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c.24-30 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 255
Was all of this opprobrium appropriate? Did Roof deserve the ruing of Lovecraft & co.? It is hardly unusual for two writers to run across the same basic idea; Lovecraft would run into a similar situation with the revision tale “Winged Death” (1934).
There is some fairness to the criticism. Roof’s story is told with a certain disarming prosaic quality; the thieves speak like characters that wandered in from Black Mask or some other hardboiled pulp, the Irish-American moonshiners have a certain rusticity and more than a touch of ethnic stereotype to them. The story is not at all long, and the mystery is scarcely that, for even though Roof refrains from calling it a dinosaur until near the end, there seems little else that the giant reptile could be—and even if there was, the cover is a bit of a dead giveaway. The entire mechanism by which the egg managed to hatch is left unexplained; the critter remains undiscovered and grows to prodigious size within months. It’s final death by a chance bullet—and its remains destroyed by another chance—are almost deus ex machina. Even the title is a bit of a misnomer—although in this case, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright often changed titles on authors and might have been responsible for that.
If you compare “A Million Years After” with “The Dunwich Horror”—another story which features a large, dangerous, and exotic entity encountering a rural community—some of the reasons the story fails to resonate become apparent. There’s little sense of horror conveyed by the dinosaur, for all that the rural folks are scare of it; the description is at once both too much and insufficient. We never get a clear idea of what species of dinosaur it even is: the creature is reptilian and dwells in a swamp; has a huge body, a snake-like neck with a small head, claws on its feat, spotted skin instead of scales, and…most oddly…runs on its hind legs! While the cover depicts a sauropod, especially the early depictions of such creatures, the combination of features doesn’t quite line up.
The best that could be said about the story is that the bones of a good idea are there. The idea of a living dinosaur of titanic size, extinct for millions of years, has serious legs…as was proved in the film The Lost World (1925), and would be proved again by King Kong (1933), inaugurating a number of monster movies and creature features. Lovecraft himself saw both films, and was impressed by the stop-motion animation that brought the dinosaurs and giant ape to life:
I shall, I think, see “The Lost World” two weeks hence, for it is coming to the Strand at fairly popular prices. This palaeontological phantasy charmed me as a story some fifteen or more years ago, & I have wanted to see it ever since it was presented as a cinema. What a writer Doyle was before he went to seed as a dupe of spirit-mediums! Lost worlds have always been a favourite theme of mine, & I shall treat them more than once before I lay down my fictional pen for ever. The novelette I have mapped out, & which will probably be the next thing I shall write, deals largely with strange vestiges of a past primordial & horrible beyond expression. To me there is no one subject in literature so fascinating as chronological disarrangement—the conquest of time & Nature, & the momentary bringing together of two ages infinities apart. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 23 Sep 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.410
Yes—I shall see “The Lost World” this week, & know I shall enjoy it. Those of our gang who saw it are still marvelling over the impressive cleverness of the mechanical effects. —H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 4 Oct 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.436
I may do likewise with “King Kong” if its prehistoric life scenes are as good as those in “The Lost World”—which I say in 1925. —H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 29 May 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c. 134
Since last writing you I have seen “King Kong” (good mechanical effects) & “Madchen in Uniform.” —H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 30 Jul 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c. 141
“A Million Years After” has never been reprinted, except in facsimile reprints of Weird Tales. The story’s author Katharine Metcalf Roof remains mostly unknown today, and there are no collections of her pulp fiction. It might well be claimed that she had little impact on weird fiction, and is basically forgotten.
Except…in early 1931, only a couple months after “A Millions Years After” came out, H. P. Lovecraft did begin to write a story that involved a strange survival from hundreds of millions of years in the past, that was awakened by a group of scientists after a long hibernation. There was no egg, and it wasn’t a dinosaur, but as he said to Clark Ashton Smith, it was an utterly alien form of life…
While “A Million Years After” surely isn’t the only inspiration for the story, the timing is such that maybe—just maybe—it was Roof’s handling of the idea of the ancient survival that gave Lovecraft the impetus to put his ideas on paper.
“A Million Years After” (1930) by Katharine Metcalf Roof can be read for free online here.